Magazine article Natural History

Going with the Flow

Magazine article Natural History

Going with the Flow

Article excerpt

For the harbor seal Phoca vitulina, tracking a fish zipping through murky waters is not a daunting task. That is, as long as the seal has its whiskers, an array of refined vibration receptors. A new study further suggests that seals can use their whiskers to determine the size and shape of a fish solely by reading the wake it leaves behind. That can help them decide whether it's worth investing the energy to catch a fish that just swam past.

Wolf Hanke of the University of Rostock, Germany, and four colleagues exposed Henry, the harbor seal, to wakes produced by paddles of different shapes and sizes that were mechanically dragged through the water. After the paddle had swept by, from left to right, a door was opened to allow Henry to poke in his head (and whiskers) and sense the turbulence in the water. To ensure that he didn't use visual clues, or clues from the motor that moved the paddles, prior to each trial he was positioned with his whiskers above the surface, blindfolded with a stocking mask, and fitted with earphones that produced a masking noise. …

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