Comparative histomorphology of intrinsic vibrissa musculature among primates: Implications for the evolution of sensory ecology and "face touch"

Magdalena N. Muchlinski, Emily L. Durham, Timothy D. Smith, Anne M. Burrows

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Macrovibrissae are specialized tactile sensory hairs present in most mammalian orders, used in maxillary mechanoreception or "face touch." Some mammals have highly organized vibrissae and are able to "whisk" them. Movement of vibrissae is influenced by intrinsic vibrissa musculature, striated muscle bands that attach directly to the vibrissa capsule. It is unclear if primates have organized vibrissae or intrinsic vibrissa musculature and it is uncertain if they can move their vibrissae. The present study used histomorphological techniques to compare vibrissae among 19 primates and seven non-primate mammalian taxa. Upper lips of these mammals were sectioned and processed for histochemical analysis. While controlling for phylogenetic effects the following hypotheses were tested: 1) mammals with well-organized vibrissae possess intrinsic vibrissa musculature and 2) intrinsic vibrissa musculature is best developed in nocturnal, arboreal taxa. Our qualitative analyses show that only arboreal, nocturnal prosimians possess intrinsic musculature. Not all taxa that possessed organized vibrissae had intrinsic vibrissa musculature. Phylogenetic comparative analyses revealed a 70% probability that stem mammals, primates, and haplorhines possessed intrinsic vibrissa musculature and well-organized vibrissae. These two traits most likely coevolved according to a discrete phylogenetic analysis. These results indicate that nocturnal, arboreal primates have the potential to more actively use their vibrissae in spatial recognition and navigation tasks than diurnal, more terrestrial species, but there is a clear phylogenetic signal involved in the evolution of primate vibrissae and "face touch."

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-312
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • activity pattern
  • comparative method
  • sensory ecology
  • vibrissae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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