Whale Senses – Touch

Whales and other cetaceans live in a world completely different to ours. Theirs is a cold, watery, silent place that they share with millions upon millions of other species. To inhabit this environment safely, they require a number of senses, not least of all the sense of touch.

The skin of a whale is very sensitive to touch. This may come as a surprise to some who imagine it to be a thick, leathery layer. However, it is actually very thin. It is the layer of blubber beneath the skin that may give it the appearance of being far hardier than it really is.

Whales are able to sense touch all over their bodies, regardless of how big they are. They are especially sensitive around their genital organs, the tops of their heads, their flippers and their bellies. These are important areas for the whale to protect and of which to be aware. The sensitivity on the head, for example, allows the whale to feel when its blowhole has emerged from the water completely so that it can take a breath without letting water into its lungs.

Most whales also have whisker-like structures on their snouts called vibrissae. These are short and small, not hair-like as is the case with cats. Vibrissae are present around the lower jaw and, sometimes, on the top of the whale’s head. In some species, these disappear immediately after birth or before adulthood, while others retain their vibrissae for their entire lifespan. These vibrissae have nerve endings and a rich supply of blood to facilitate their sensitivity. The Northern Right Whale has the highest density of vibrissae, averaging about 250 structures. These “whiskers” allow the whale to investigate and explore objects in much the same way that we would use our fingers in the dark.

Baleen whales have dermal sensors that are distributed over the entire body, including the head and snout. These resemble small lumps. They are sensitive to touch and can even feel pressure changes or turbulence in the water.

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