Active touch in sea otters: in-air and underwater texture discrimination thresholds and behavioral strategies for paws and vibrissae [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Sarah McKay Strobel, Jillian M. Sills, M. Tim Tinker, and Colleen J. Reichmuth

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are marine predators that forage on a wide array of cryptic, benthic invertebrates. Observational studies and anatomical investigations of the sea otter somatosensory cortex suggest that touch is an important sense for detecting and capturing prey. Sea otters have two well-developed tactile structures: front paws and facial vibrissae. In this study, we use a two-alternative forced choice paradigm to investigate tactile sensitivity of a sea otter subject’s paws and vibrissae, both in air and under water. We corroborate these measurements by testing human subjects with the same experimental paradigm. The sea otter showed good sensitivity with both tactile structures, but better paw sensitivity (Weber fraction, c=0.14) than vibrissal sensitivity (c=0.24). The sea otter’s sensitivity was similar in air and under water for paw (cair=0.12, cwater=0.15) and for vibrissae (cair=0.24, cwater=0.25). Relative to the human subjects we tested, the sea otter achieved similar sensitivity when using her paw and responded approximately 30-fold faster regardless of difficulty level. Relative to non-human mammalian tactile specialists, the sea otter achieved similar or better sensitivity when using either her paw or vibrissae and responded 1.5- to 15-fold faster near threshold. Our findings suggest that sea otters have sensitive, rapid tactile processing capabilities. This functional test of anatomy-based hypotheses provides a mechanistic framework to interpret adaptations and behavioral strategies used by predators to detect and capture cryptic prey in aquatic habitats.

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