Research Publication

Feeling for food: can rostro-mental hair arrays sense hydrodynamic cues for foraging North Atlantic right whales?

By Christin T. Murphy, Marilyn Marx, William N. Martin, Houshuo Jiang, Joy M. Lapseritis, Alison N. French, Nancy B. Simmons, Michael J. Moore

Originally published in The Anatomical Record in February 2022



North Atlantic right whales (NARWs; Eubalaena glacialis) possess an arrangement of fine hairs on the rostrum and chin that may be used for hydrodynamic sensing during feeding. These hairs occur across mysticete species and are known to possess adequate innervation in the subdermal follicle to support their consideration as sensory hairs (vibrissae). However, the small size of the hair structure with respect to the enormous scale of the animal’s body has caused doubts regarding their utility and prompted speculation that the hairs maybe vestigial or minimally functional. Here we show that NARW hairs occur in abundance on the leading surface of the head in a unique and characteristic arrangement. We consider the sensory hairs in context of the fluid environment in which this species forages and argue that the size of the hair is scaled to the size of the animal’s small planktonic prey, thus suggesting that the hairs play an important role in the sensory ecology of these animals.

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Affiliated Authors
  • Marilyn Marx

    Marilyn Marx, Associate Research Scientist, Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

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