Hallo my fellow Bloggerheadseaturtles,
I know it has been a disturbing length of time since my last post. We can mainly thank graduate school for that. 🙂 My goal is to write weekly posts again, so I hope my current workload will allow me to. I am currently living in Rostock, Germany and working as a researcher at the Marine Science Center here. It is the same center that brought you the research that I wrote about in my Seals & Stars post. I received a 10-month research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to study the hydrodynamic perception of seal whiskers. It has been a fantastic experience so far, and I am looking forward to the remainder of my time here!
I thought it would be fitting to write my first post back about the M.S. research that prevented me from blogging more often. My publication just came out in September 2016: Follicle Microstructure and Innervation Vary between Pinniped Micro- and Macrovibrissae. It is behind a paywall, and I am almost out of free copies that I can legally release, but the free Abstract is pretty on point. 🙂 Hopefully, if you are a biologist, your institute carries the journal subscription. If not, I will also explain the gist now in non-scientific terms with the hope of working on my scientific communication skills. It may or may not be as fun as Dr. Sheldon Cooper presents: Fun with Flags. 🙂
Essentially, I evaluated the number and pattern of nerves going to the whiskers on the muzzle (mystacial vibrissae) of harp seals. To do this, I sectioned and stained the subdermal portion (follicle-sinus complex) of the whisker to analyze the nerves and follicle structure. Pinnipeds have an amazing whisker design as their whiskers possess an additional blood-filled compartment just under the skin (compared to terrestrial and semi-aquatic animals). This extra compartment allows the nerves within the whisker to function properly regardless of the cold temperatures the seals may find themselves in (This is a fun fact that I did not personally discover, but it helps introduce you to the awesomeness of whiskers). In general, I found that the nerves and other structures within smaller whisker follicles were more symmetrically distributed than those found in larger whisker follicles. Interestingly, even though the smaller whiskers had fewer nerves in total, they had similar nerve densities to the larger whiskers. In other words, despite having fewer nerves, the smaller whiskers are just as important to seals as the larger ones, but they may be developed to detect different stimuli than the larger whiskers. My research was the first study to show distinct differences between mystacial whiskers in pinnipeds and highlight the need to evaluate these whiskers separately in future studies as they likely serve different functions.
Unfortunately, the samples that I used had to be obtained from stranded animals that were unable to recover at their rehabilitation facility. Hence, I leave you with a picture of a healthy, adorable harbor seal that lives at the center here in Germany.