The mystacial vibrissae of pinnipeds constitute a sensory system for active touch and detection of hydrodynamic events. Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) can both detect hydrodynamic stimuli caused by a small sphere vibrating in the water (hydrodynamic dipole stimuli). Hydrodynamic trail following has only been shown in harbour seals. Hydrodynamical and biomechanical studies of single vibrissae of the two species showed that the specialized undulated structure of harbour seal vibrissae, as opposed to the smooth structure of sea lion vibrissae, suppresses self-generated noise in the actively moving animal. Here we tested whether also sea lions were able to perform hydrodynamic trail following in spite of their non-specialized hair structure. Hydrodynamic trails were generated by a remote-controlled miniature submarine. Linear trails could be followed with high accuracy, comparable to the performance of harbour seals, but in contrast, increasing delay resulted in a reduced performance as compared to harbour seals. The results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis that structural differences in the vibrissal hair types of otariid compared to phocid pinnipeds lead to different sensitivity of the vibrissae during forward swimming, but still reveal a good performance even in the species with non-specialized hair type.
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