Rodents, such as rats and mice, are strongly tactile animals who explore the environment with their long mobile facial whiskers, or macrovibrissae, and orient to explore objects further with their shorter, more densely packed, microvibrissae. Although whisker motion (whisking) has been extensively studied, less is known about how rodents orient their vibrissal system to investigate unexpected stimuli. We describe two studies that address this question. In the first we seek to characterize how adult rats orient toward unexpected macrovibrissal contacts with objects and examine the microvibrissal exploration behavior following such contacts. We show that rats orient to the nearest macrovibrissal contact on an unexpected object, progressively homing in on the nearest contact point on the object in each subsequent whisk. Following contact, rats "dab" against the object with their microvibrissae at an average rate of approximately 8 Hz, which suggests synchronization of microvibrissal dabbing with macrovibrissal motion, and an amplitude of 5 mm. In study two, we examine the role of orienting to tactile contacts in developing rat pups for maintaining aggregations (huddles). We show that young pups are able to orient to contacts with nearby conspecifics before their eyes open implying an important role for the macrovibrissae, which are present from birth, in maintaining contact with conspecifics. Overall, these data suggest that orienting to tactile cues, detected by the vibrissal system, plays a crucial role throughout the life of a rat.
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