Researchers have confirmed that the whiskers on seals are critical in their ability to detect prey. The seal studies, which are published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have found that even while blindfolded, seals are capable of tracking and following an object with remarkable precision.
Engineers from MIT have described this seal superpower as a “laser-like tracking ability” in which the whiskers pick up sensory information left by turbulence in the water. Seals are able to follow the precise path of any object that swam by them in the past 30 seconds.
Tech Times points out that many marine animals use echolocation to identify their surroundings through the reflection of sound. Though not identical, the vibrations in water that interact with the whiskers of a seal has the same end result, giving them the ability to sense where an object is, what it looks like, how big it is, and where it is going.
The whiskers of seals have also been found to exude an effect much like a cloaking device, where their seal’s presence is muted as they tread the water — making it easy for them to detect and attack prey.
Michael Triantafyllou, a Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at MIT, says the revelations may lead to advances in technology where underwater vehicles can be built with biologically inspired sensors based on the seal’s whiskers.
Biologically inspired sensors, modeled after the harbor seal’s whiskers, may aid underwater vehicles in tracking schools of fish, as well as sources of pollution.
Mitra Hartmann, a professor from Northwestern University involved in this whisker study and similar others, said that whiskers play an important role in other animals lives as well. Rats, for example, use their whiskers to detect the texture of objects as a human being might use their fingertips to touch something.
The findings of the study have been published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.