People who lose the use of one or more of their senses – particularly sight – will almost always find that to compensate, their other senses become heightened.

Blind people invariably have far more acute senses of smell and hearing, and their sense of touch – almost redundant in many people – becomes an indispensable tool. Just think of Braille; entire books can be read, purely through touch!

I was thinking of this the other day when on leave in Cape Town. I don’t know if any of you have visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanical gardens below Table Mountain, but there is a walk that one can do with a purely aromatic focus called the Fragrance Garden. Heavily scented and textured plants line each side of the walkway, and a description of each species accompanies it in Braille. One doesn’t have to rely solely on sight to experience the magic of the botanical world, and every visitor is encouraged to immerse themselves in the walk purely by using the hand rail and their senses of touch and smell.

Walking through the Fragrance Garden and seeing the Braille plaques, I started thinking about the sense of touch, and in particular those of the big cats, with my main thoughts being about whiskers.

Mashaba Leopard Jt

The Mashaba female sporting some impressive facial vibrissae.

Now I know we’ve had quite a leopard-centric few days, but seeing as how these big cats are the main attraction at Londolozi more often than not, and their whiskers are the most impressive of any species here by a long shot, let’s discuss.

An understanding of the basic functioning of whiskers is necessary before we proceed.

Firstly, we need to be familiar with the term vibrissae, which is the more biologically correct term for whiskers. Simply put, they are modified hairs that have become specialized touch organs. Whiskers are a type of vibrissae that grow around the nose, mouth and eyes, but hairs all over certain mammals’ bodies can be classed as vibrissae.

As these hairs brush against something, be it a blade of grass or something less delicate, the vibrissae are moved accordingly, depending on the hardness and texture of the object.
Nerve cells are embedded into the hair follicle at the base of each vibrissa (singular of vibrissae), and any motion of the hair will trigger these sensors.
Seals, that often fish in water where the visibility is effectively zero, have extremely sensitive whiskers, with up to 1500 motion sensors per whisker. Rats and cats – that can rely far more on other senses to help them find food – have 100-200. In fact, the term “whisker” comes from the back and forth whisking motion that seals and other mammals use to locate prey.

The way in which the vibrissae at stimulated will be translated by the motions sensors and the nervous system into information about the direction, velocity and duration of the stimulation, allowing the animal to form an accurate picture of what it came into contact with.

Tamboti Leopard Grass Jt

The Tamboti female in thick foliage. Look at how long her whiskers are. One can imagine that being as sensitive as they are, they are able to feed her information about the environment she is moving through either when her sight has to remain locked on a target, or if visibility is reduced, like at night.

Now that we understand how vibrissae work, let’s look at them in the context of a leopard.

Essentially a leopard’s entire body is covered with vibrissae. Thousands of hairs are constantly feeding the leopard information about the terrain it’s moving through, but the whiskers around the face are by far the most important. If one examines a leopard’s whiskers closely, especially when compared with a lion, they almost start to look disproportionate to its body size.

Lions, being pride hunters, don’t need to be as acutely aware of every little permutation of the grass they are stalking their prey through. Should anything go wrong, and they inadvertently make more noise than intended due to some rough foliage brushing against them, they will more than likely have some pride mates backing them up.

Ntsevu Lioness Bw Jt

A lioness from the Ntsevu pride. Although also possessing fairly impressive whiskers, they aren’t quite as long as a leopards’, as Africa’s largest felines aren’t as dependent on them as their spotted cousins.

Lions hunt as a team. Less emphasis is placed on their whiskers’ functionality as a result.

Ndzanzeni leopard DD

The Ndzanzeni female in classic stalking mode. Just look how wide her whiskers stretch on either side of her face. She will know exactly how much room she has to work with as she stalks her prey. Photograph by Dave Dampier

A leopard however, has no such luxury. It hunts successfully or it slowly starves.
Every. Single. Step. That it takes. Might be the difference between a successful hunt and hunger. Evolution has recognized the need for some extra help, and this is where the whiskers come in. From tip to tip a leopards’ whiskers are going to be about as wide as it’s body.

That’s pretty significant. It means that the leopard, a solitary hunter, can lock its focus on its prey without once deviating, and while it is stalking it will be getting fed constant information about what it is stalking through; whether the grass might rustle. Whether the gap between those branches is big enough to squeeze through without making a noise. Low visibility conditions such as the dead of night will also let the whiskers come into their own; a continuous feedback system keeps the leopard totally in tune with what it is moving through and how the hunt might be impacted. The gaff would be blown far more often during a leopard’s hunt if it didn’t have such incredible whiskers, that I can guarantee.

As beautiful as leopards are, it’s only by having an understanding of the subtle intricacies of their anatomy that we can truly appreciate how they are one of nature’s ultimate synergies.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

23 Comments

on The Cat’s Whiskers

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Penny Tainton

This is a fantastic article, James. I will be visiting Kirstenbosch and doing the various sensory walks with a new curiosity and insight!

James Tyrrell

Hi Penny,
Good to hear; it’s well worth the visit!

Joanne Wadsworth

What a beautiful, informative and well written blog, James. Also hats off to Dave Dampier’s stalking image. Exquisite….as are those trusty vibrissae!

James Tyrrell

Thanks Joanne,
Dave’s image is definitely one of my favourites!

Wendy Macnicol

So interesting, James. Thank you so much for this lesson on whiskers, or should I say “vibrissae”? I had noticed that most domestic cats have THE most marvellous whiskers – but dogs don’t on the whole. Now I know why Dogs run in packs if they are hunting eg pack of wolves or pack of African Wild Dogs. Thanks again. Wendy M

James Tyrrell

Hi Wendy,
Yip, I imagine the canine vs feline whiskers debate is something similar to that between lions and leopards.
Best,
James

Mary Beth Wheeler

Really interesting, James! I’d never thought of whiskers as touch sensors – and the photo of the Ndzedzeni female really brings home the concept!

James Tyrrell

Hi Mary Beth,
I should actually be wary of putting in that photo of Dave’s; it steal’s the show every time!!

Callum Evans

Thanks for another great read!! When I’ve seen pictures of lions swimming in the Delta, they always pull their faces into a grimace to prevent their whiskers touching the water as long as possible. So they evidently retain some sensitivity there.

Callum Evans

Hey, next time you’re in CT, would you like to meet up? I’m really keen to learn about certain key aspects of Londolozi and how your guiding programme works.

James Tyrrell

Hi Callum,
I probably won’t be back in CT for quite some time but am happy to send you any info you would like on the Londolozi Guiding program…

Callum Evans

Thanks James, I’d really appreciate that!

Callum Evans

And I pratically live in Kirstenbosch!! My photos on my instagram account prove that, the birds there just pose for the camera!

Marinda Drake

Interesting blog James. Domestic cats can squeeze through the smallest spaces relying on their whiskers. Imagine how a leopard depend on it.

James Tyrrell

Hi Marinda,
Absolutely. Whiskers are probably a leopard’s most undervalued hunting tool (undervalued by us that is!)

Ian Hall

My aim is to combine a trip to Londolozi with a trip to the Botanic Gardens at Kirstenbosch , in the mean time the photo of the Ndanzeni female is wondrous to behold .

James Tyrrell

Hi Ian,
Kirstenbosch is a must-do if you’re in Cape Town!!

Denise Vouri

You’ve written an extraordinarily informative article that answers many questions about the use of vibrissae, or the long whiskers and fur in animals mostly in the feline world. Dave’s photograph of the stalking Ndzanzeni female is fantastic- wish it was mine. I’ll not look at cats the same again.

James Tyrrell

Hi Denise; you’re not the only one to feel slightly jealous about Dave’s photo!!

Mj Bradley

Thanks for this enlightening blog! Some of us have domestic cats and I would think the same holds true for them if they are left in the wild. I love cats, all sizes and shapes, but I think leopards and tigers are the top spots for me.. Other than my feline companions here at home! I have been on one of those sensory walks at a Botanic Garden here in the US.. They are amazing!Thanks again.

James Tyrrell

Hi MJ,
Thanks for the comments. I imagine that domestic cats would find just as much use in their whiskers should they be left to fend for themselves…

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, That is fantastic information that makes sense! We never knew how much the whiskers helped the hunt. They do add to the beauty of the leopards! Is there a difference between the males and females whiskers?

James Tyrrell

Hi Michael.
Good question. I wouldn’t have thought so, both of them being solitary hunters. If there was any possibility of a difference, I’d imagine it would lean towards females’ whiskers being slightly longer. Males, being much bigger, can steal kills from females, so have alternative means of procuring meals. For the females it’s far more a case of successful hunting or nothing.

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