Super senses: Blackpool zoo keeper explores unique movement of sea lion whiskers

Paul Crone has been to meet Dr Alyx and the sea lions at Blackpool Zoo.

Have you ever wondered how seal and sea lions are able to hunt underwater? You might be surprised to learn that they use their whiskers.

And now, a North West zoo keeper has secured funding to further her in-depth research into the actual movement of the animal's whiskers.

Liverpool-born Dr Alyx Milne PhD, who works at Blackpool Zoo, has been accepted onto the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Discovery Fellowship, following a grueling year-long selection process.

Her research proved for the first time that specialist muscles move seal and sea lion whiskers, which had once been thought to be down to the animal's head positioning.

Dr Alyx will be go on to explore how whiskers are moved, controlled and used for touch sensing, much like human fingertips.

Dr Alyx Milne with sea lion, Lo, at Blackpool Zoo.

Seals and sea lions have highly sensitive whiskers that help them to hunt even in poor visual conditions.

According to the Natural History Museum, they can detect the movement of other creatures in the water, even while moving themselves.

Dr Alyx's research is called "Super Seal Sense: Whisker movement strategies in Pinnipeds" and will be funded by BBSRC and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The mother-of two, who has worked as a researcher and associate lecturer, will be completing her at project at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Credit: PA

"My research so far has shown that California sea lions use their whiskers for task-specific movements such as identifying the size or texture of an object, so the next step will be to investigate whether other species also do this", Dr Alyx said.

"Although many researchers assume whiskers do active touch sensing, it has never been quantitatively investigated in any animal."

It's thought the exploring the subject could bring 'benefits to numerous diverse fields'.

Dr Alyx explains: "I will design training tasks and use state-of-the-art 3D imaging to compare differences between pinniped whiskers and the efficiency of their sensing. 

"I'll be able to explore the effects of whisker shape using mechanical models and underwater robot sensors."

Credit: PA

Zoo Director, Darren Webster, says he is hugely proud of Dr Alyx. He said: "Since joining our team 12 years ago she has become a firm favourite with visitors, staff and, of course, the sea lions.

"She works incredibly hard and gives 100 per cent to everything she does, which is why she is so successful.

"This fellowship is an amazing opportunity and she thoroughly deserves her place."