The thermal characteristics of the mystacial vibrissae of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and of the follicle crypts on the rostrum of the dolphin Sotalia fluviatilis guianensis were measured using an infrared imaging system. Thermograms demonstrate that, in both species, single vibrissal follicles are clearly defined units of high thermal radiation, indicating a separate blood supply to these cutaneous structures. It is suggested that the high surface temperatures measured in the area of the mouth of the follicles is a function of the sinus system. In seals and dolphins, surface temperature gradually decreased with increasing distance from the centre of a follicle, indicating heat conduction from the sinus system via the follicle capsule to adjacent tissues. It is suggested that the follicular sinus system is a thermoregulatory structure responsible for the maintenance of high tactile sensitivity at the extremely low ambient temperatures demonstrated for the vibrissal system of seals. The vibrissal follicles of odontocetes have been described as vestigial structures, but the thermograms obtained in the present study provide the first evidence that, in Sotalia fluviatilis, the follicles possess a well-developed sinus system, suggesting that they are part of a functional mechanosensory system.
- © 2000 by Company of Biologists