Why Are Whiskers So Important?
Ask any bald man and he will tell you that he bumps his head more often than he did when he had a full head of hair. The reason? Hair gives advance warning of an object that one’s skull is about to encounter.
Far more sensitive than normal hairs are the whiskers that grow on the snouts of many mammals. Whiskers play a major role, for example, in the cat-and-mouse game. Both of these creatures use them to feel their way around in the dark and to maneuver through tight spots.
Perhaps the ultimate whiskers are those sported by the magnificently mustachioed walrus, which can manipulate its remarkably strong and flexible snout hairs as if they were fingers. Walruses swim in plankton-clouded Arctic waters, feeding on clams, mussels, and other invertebrates inhabiting the muddy ocean floor. Questing for a meal, a walrus swims head-down, its snout skimming the bottom. As it probes the mud for edibles, the walrus uses its whiskers to sort out hard-shelled creatures from the soft-bodied ones it feeds on, such as starfish.
Some cats might have exceptionally long whiskers–some ranging up to half a foot! But this anomaly isn’t based on what cat breed they are, rather, gender and hereditary physicality can also play into the length and sensitivity of whiskers.Only mammals have true whiskers, but a few species of birds have bristly feathers that approximate them. Like the mustache of the walrus, the pseudowhiskers on either side of the whippoorwill’s gaping mouth are also a device for gathering food; the bird uses them to net flying insects from the air. For animals that are equipped with whiskers, trying to survive without them would be a close shave indeed.