Cats are apex predators, and they have their whiskers to thank for that.
Cats don’t grow whiskers just to gain extra style points – they’ve got a good reason for being there. Vibrissae or whiskers, as they’re more commonly known, are well-honed sensory tools that come with a bounty of imperative benefits for certain mammals.
Whiskers are extremely sensitive, tactile like hairs that are most commonly found around a cats muzzle. Interestingly, they can also be found elsewhere on the body, like the ear’s, jaw and even forelegs. At the base of each whisker is follicle (a small sensory cavity) loaded with sensitive nerves. Cat’s brush their whiskers against objects to determine the exact location, size and texture of a specific thing.
Interestingly, these extraordinary hairs work similarly to an old-fashioned gramophone. As the whiskers brush against something, small surface irregularities cause them to move. These movements are detected by hundreds of motion sensors inside the hair follicle. The sensitivity of these sensors varies amount different animal species. On average cats and rats, for example, have 100-200 nerve cells per whisker whilst seals have an astonishing 1,500!
Navigation aside, cat’s without whiskers would have a very hard time getting around. The animal will come across as slightly disorientated and might even become aggressive. This is because cat’s have a sensory organ at the end of their whiskers called a proprioceptor. The proprioceptor helps them know exactly where all their limbs are in relation to the rest of the body – vital for distinguishing when they have to make immediate movements or when they need to gauge their surroundings.
Whiskers not only help felines determine their surroundings, they help us humans understand a cat’s emotional state as well. For example, a set of taut whiskers, pulled back closely to face indicates feelings of threat or unease. A relaxed, happy cat will have their whiskers pointing outward, away from the face.
Whiskers are similar to other hairs in the way that they have a natural growth cycle. After about two or three months, they will grow back and the cat will return to it’s old self. Structurally, they are made of keratin, the same fibrous protein that all other hairs are made of, with the only difference being that they are thicker (about two to three times).
It is believed that mammals evolved these unique hairs when dinosaurs roamed the earth and were forced to hunt nocturnally (when most of the larger predators were less active). Whiskers became imperative tools in the development and survival of our now, furry friends.