Question of the Week

Is human facial hair like a cat's whiskers?

Sat, 29th Oct 2011

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George Pope asked:

Do cat whiskers and human facial hair have anything in common as of their uses?


We put this question to Nick Crompton, a Zoologist in the Mammal Evolution and Morphology group in Cambridge University...

Nick -   To a certain point, the whiskers on your cat’s face and stubble on mine look pretty similar.  After all, they're both part of our Pelage - our insulating furry coat.   But whiskers are a type of specialised hair called vibrissae.  Now among other places, they're found in the maxillary – that's the upper lip region, and they come in both macro and micro forms, and in the same way as normal hairs, they’re keratinous structures growing out of the skin – the epidermis.  But whiskers tend to be far thicker and as we know, they act as mechanoreception organs.

(c) Icebooter @ Wikipedia

JamesWeb @ Wikipedia

" alt="Cat" />Now obviously, when someone pulls a hair out of my head it hurts, and to some extent, all hairs act as mechanoreceptors for very light touch.  So, I can feel if something brushes very lightly up against the hairs on my arm.  But vibrissae sport a suite of tactile sensitive organs at their base, so any tiny displacement results in a far more complicated signal being transduced to the animal’s brain wherein a large portion of its somatosensory cortex is concerned with interpreting signals as spatial information.

Beardy chaps don't have this sort of specialisation within our brains and in fact, humans are almost unique in being one of only two mammals known not to sport any vibrissae at all, along with the anteater.  But it’s recently been reported that the muscles used to move whiskers around are present in the human lip, but has very degenerate vestigial structures.  Now our beards are more than likely the result of sexual selection like the mutton chops and moustaches on some old world monkeys, and they just help their owners look dashing, if maybe, a little bit scruffy.


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Cats whiskers are tactile and set deeper into the skin than other hair. They use them to sense air pressure and spacial changes. We can't really do that with facial hair. Removing a cats whiskers is uncomfortable and limiting for the cat. Humans remove facial hair with no real functional side effects, unless you wax your face.. that might hurt a bit. JnA, Sat, 12th Mar 2011

This is second hand but others might be able to confirm it's true.
A friend told me about a cat who's whiskers had been cut off. The cat then seemed to have quite a bit of trouble with balance. krool1969, Mon, 24th Oct 2011

Is this the culprit ? ...   

This guy "grows his own" ...  RD, Wed, 26th Oct 2011

I was told the cats whiskers were to help them judge tight spaces, keep them from harm-if the cats whiskers are disturbed, then they are aware they wont fit thru, and thats why they are the length they are. I don't know if this is true but it sounded valid when i heard it. jazzderry, Thu, 27th Oct 2011

Jazz i think i have heard that before as well DAVID WOOD , Mon, 14th Nov 2011

Hair evolved originally as whiskers on some therapsid reptiles, and they only appeared on the rest of the body later in the earliest mammals, through a simple mutation. Therefore there is no question human hair and cat whiskers are 2 versions of the same structure. Cal King, Tue, 21st May 2013

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