Ultra-Sensitive Whiskers Let Mountain Lions “See” in the Dark

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Just like your pet cat, the Puma concolor—also known as the cougar or mountain lion—has a face full of whiskers. But these extra hairs, which typically grow along a cat’s snout, cheeks, chin, brow, and wrists, aren’t just for show. 

 

Merkel Cells

Cat whiskers are packed with sensory nerve endings called Merkel cells, which serve an important purpose for these nocturnal hunters. All vertebrates—including humans—have Merkel cells in their skin, but the highest concentration can be found in mammalian whiskers (vibrissae), making the mountain lion’s fancy feelers some of the most sensitive hairs around.

 

Closeup of a cougar's face, highlighting its whiskers.

A mountain lion’s whiskers, or vibrissae, detect small changes in the air indicating nearby objects or prey.

Courtesy of B. Lammers/Wikimedia Commons


 

Sight in the Dark

How does it work? Tight clusters of nerve endings at the base of each whisker, in the basal layer of the epidermis, can detect changes to air flow in the animal’s surroundings, indicating nearby objects and, perhaps most importantly, prey. A mountain lion's whiskers are so sensitive, they don’t need to make physical contact with an object to sense it. Vibrissae on the wrists sense movement close to the ground and can help a cat position its paw. And according Paul Leyhausen’s frequently cited 1979 study on the behaviors of both domestic and wild cats, facial vibrissae may help a mountain lion orient its bite as it captures and kills prey.

 

Mountain lion approaches across a stony outcrop.

Mountain lions may use whiskers to orient their bite while killing prey.

Courtesy of Joshua Tree National Park/Wikimedia Commons


Glow Eyes

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because mountain lions possess this incredible, extra sensory organ that they don’t have excellent eyesight. They do. This cat boasts a wider range of vision than most humans—they can see 285 degrees compared to our measly 210—and because their eyes have more rods than cones, their retinas are especially receptive to low light conditions. Behind their retinas, an additional cell layer called the tapetum lucidum reflects available light back through the eye, letting mountain lions see clearly at night. This feature is also the reason why cats’ eyes appear to glow in the dark.

 

Fun Facts

The Museum’s Mountain Lion diorama, which can be found in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, underwent a major restoration in 2012. In an effort to make the mountain lions look their best, Museum conservationists, working with Curator Ross MacPhee in the Department of Mammalogy, completed the painstaking task of replacing the cats’ whiskers. But mountain lion whiskers are harder to come by than you may think. The creative solution: African porcupine quills, which are similar in appearance and texture to real mountain lion whiskers, were used instead.

 


Learn more about the senses of different species in our new exhibition Our Senses: An Immersive Experience.