New comic raises public awareness of ‘life-changing research’ on brain damage

21 February 2024

A new 12-page comic, ‘Investigations in Whisker World’, which aims to raise public awareness about the importance of animal whiskers has been launched. It explains how whiskers are an important sensory system for mammals enabling them to explore the world around them and how scientists studying whiskers have gained insights into the inner workings of the mammal brain and into neurological diseases such as dementia and autism.

‘Investigations in Whisker World’ describes complex scientific theories and knowledge using clear images and simple terms to raise awareness amongst the public about why whiskers are important for animals, and how different species from rats to seals, use them to explore their worlds.

It does that by illustrating a conversation between a rhino, lemur and rat about how whiskers are used by animals including seals, using examples from Aristotle’s five senses and the work of leading American neuroscientist, Thomas Woolsey.

The comic is part of a UK-first research project investigating the mechanics of whiskers by academics from LSBU and Robyn Grant from Manchester Metropolitan University, funded by the Royal Society which will publish its findings later this year. The research project has studied a range of animals who have whiskers including Harbour seal, European otter and Red fox.

The research project has been exploring the effect of whisker shape on whisker mechanics using novel mathematical algorithms. The researchers tested their theories of whisker shape and positioning on robot platforms and in behaving animals and will make recommendations for tactile robot sensor design and control. This has applications in:

  1. Neuroscience: Studying animals with highly developed whiskers e.g. The rat whisker system has applications in the study of the human nervous system and diseases including motor-neurone disease, autism & dementia.
  2. Robot design: the research developed mathematical models to understand how whiskers make contact with surfaces especially when whiskers bend and twist into 3D shapes. This has applications for robotic exploration in environments where visual information is either unreliable or restricted, such as may arise in marine archaeology, environmental monitoring, and search and rescue operations.
  3. Animal welfare: the research findings have shed further light on our understanding of the value whiskers have for individual animals and their importance to their lives. For example, although common practice in UK, shaving horse whiskers is now illegal in many countries e.g. France & Germany, where they acknowledge the importance whiskers have for the individual horse.

Dr Geoff Goss, LSBU Associate Professor - Nonlinear Dynamics, said,  This comic explains the importance of whiskers, not just animals but for humans too - from neuroscientists, robotics engineers, to those concerned for animal welfare. Studies of the rat’s whisker system has shed light on the inner workings of mammal brains and has applications in the treatment of diseases such as dementia, autism, strokes. I’m delighted that ‘Investigations in Whisker World’ is available in bookshops across the country, from the Natural History Museum in Manchester to the Wellcome Collection Museum in London and encourage everyone to pick up a copy.”