Answered by Gregg Losinski, Conservation Educator
At first glance, this would appear to be a simple yes or no question, but like many things with bears, the answer is more complex. The simple answer is that most mammals have things that look like whiskers, bears included.
The hairs that we would call whiskers are more visible on some bear species that others. Hairs that we would call whiskers are easier to see, for example, on pandas than on grizzly bears. The whiskers of bears are rather short when compared to members of the cat or dog family, such as mountain lions or wolves. In these animals, the whiskers are specialized so that nerves in the follicles at the base of the hair can receive information and send it to the brain to be processed. Bear whiskers aren’t built the same as animals that have truly functioning whiskers. Bears’ whiskers are mostly just stiff hairs that don’t collect and transmit information the same way as rats, for example.
Bears’ whiskers are sort of like the hairs on your head. When you are outside on a windy day and you feel the breeze blowing through your hair, you can get a general idea of which way the wind is coming from, but not much other information. Bear have highly developed noses and can detect smells from many miles away. Perhaps the whiskers on their faces help them sense from what direction the wind is blowing. Then they can aim their powerful snouts into the wind to learn what lies in that direction–friend, foe or dinner.
If you look at a picture of a bear’s face, aside from the large teeth, you will notice that their whiskers are short, as is the hair on their noses. Unlike other animals, bears don’t seem to need the additional information that larger whiskers can provide. The scientific name from mammal whiskers is vibrissae. Vibrissae’s Latin root is “vibrio,” meaning to vibrate. These specialized hairs vibrate in response to things they touch or even subtle movements of air. This information helps the animal survive by finding prey or helping it prevent becoming prey. Bears are so large and powerful and with such superior senses of smell, they apparently don’t need the help true whiskers could provide.
While we call the hair that humans grow on our faces whiskers, this is not the correct term. Humans are like bears in that our whiskers are mainly for show now. The only other type of mammals that do not have whiskers are the monotremes. This order of animals includes the platypus and echidna, both of which are also unusual in that they are the only mammals that lay eggs.
So, while something may look like a whisker, to be truly considered a whisker it must contain all the parts needed to collect information from the vibrations caused by outside stimuli and be able to transmit that data to the brain. Otherwise, it’s just hip-looking hair!
How Important Are Cats’ Whiskers?
Cats’ whiskers serve a very important purpose. The long hairs on their cheeks (also called vibrissae) grow to a length that is just right to help a cat test and determine whether or not he can fit through a space. There are sensory cells in the skin at the base of each whisker. These cells release chemicals that give the cat’s brain information about his surroundings every time his whiskers touch an object. This unique ability lets your cat know which spaces he can fit through and escape from.
The objective of this experiment is to observe and determine how well your cat uses his whiskers to navigate his way through a maze.
Materials: boxes, books, your cat, cat treats
- Use the boxes and books to set up a corridor for your cat to walk through. Vary the width of the corridor, creating some wider spaces and some narrower spaces.
- Bring your cat into the room and observe him. Can he squeeze through the obstacles? Hint: If you have trouble getting him to try out the obstacle course, trying coaxing him with treats.
- Next try propping a book open so that it creates the shape of a triangle. Did your cat attempt to crawl through?
- Reward your cat and record all your observations.
Did your cat squeeze through the obstacles? Did he try? Did your cat walk tall through a corridor or did he hunch down and crawl through narrow spaces? Did you observe your cat using his whiskers to navigate.