An artificial model of a seal’s whiskers shows how the creatures hunt for fish. The whiskers play a vital role in the detection of the seal’s prey.
Harbor seals have a very intricate way of gauging where exactly their prey happens to be. And the prey consists of fast-moving fish beneath the deep blue ocean’s waves.
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The fact that these curious creatures are able to pursue and catch prey that whizzed past them even when blindfolded is indeed amazing. Researchers have thought that their whiskers play an important role in this radar-like ability.
Engineers at MIT have made a full-scale model of a harbor seal’s whisker and the facts have come out like the solutions to puzzles within puzzles. The whiskers have dual jobs which they accomplish for the harbor seal with alacrity.
They are static as compared to the seal’s own movements. And they slalom or move in a specified manner with reference to any moving object that flits by them. The moment the passing object makes its exit, the whiskers start vibrating in accordance and with the selfsame frequency. The slalom motion is sort of a zigzagging that occurs in a very fine-tuned manner.
The slaloming allows the whiskers to gauge the exact nature, shape and path not to mention speed of the prey. Via a high degree of sensitivity, the seal is able to pinpoint its prey with accuracy and dead certainty.
The result is that it goes for the unfortunate fish with a directness of purpose seldom seen in the animal kingdom except perhaps in the Big Cats. Since man too imitates nature and learns from its mechanisms, the seal’s whiskers may be artificially constructed in the lab. And such instruments of discovery will help future seafarers to catch large hauls of fish via the sole tool of a couple of sensitive filaments.
The device may even be employed in the eradication of pollution. It all depends upon the level of complexity mankind is capable of building into the gadget which is still in a prototypical stage.
The harbor seal’s whiskers are not straight but have a wave like texture. Under a microscope, the intricate details show it to be a pretty complex object of sensory satisfaction. And thus its design may contribute to its special nature of descrying prey with razor sharp precision. The structural-functional mechanics of the whiskers need an in-depth and thorough analysis before mankind will be able to copy them for his own purposes.
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This study was done by MIT mechanical engineering professor Michael Triantafyllou and former graduate student Heather Beem, who published their findings in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.