Two types of vibrissal surface structures, undulated and smooth, exist among pinnipeds. Most Phocidae have vibrissae with undulated surfaces, while Otariidae, Odobenidae, and a few phocid species possess vibrissae with smooth surfaces. Variations in cross-sectional profile and orientation of the vibrissae also exist between pinniped species. These factors may influence the way that the vibrissae behave when exposed to water flow. This study investigated the effect that vibrissal surface structure and orientation have on flow-induced vibrations of pinniped vibrissae. Laser vibrometry was used to record vibrations along the whisker shaft from the undulated vibrissae of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) and the smooth vibrissae of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). Vibrations along the whisker shaft were measured in a flume tank, at three orientations (0°, 45°, 90°) to the water flow. The results show that vibration frequency and velocity ranges were similar for both undulated and smooth vibrissae. Angle of orientation, rather than surface structure, had the greatest effect on flow-induced vibrations. Vibration velocity was up to 60 times higher when the wide, flat aspect of the whisker faced into the flow (90°), compared to when the thin edge faced into the flow (0°). Vibration frequency was also dependent on angle of orientation. Peak frequencies were measured up to 270 Hz and were highest at the 0° orientation for all whiskers. Furthermore, CT scanning was used to quantify the three-dimensional structure of pinniped vibrissae that may influence flow interactions. The CT data provide evidence that all vibrissae are flattened in cross-section to some extent and that differences exist in the orientation of this profile with respect to the major curvature of the hair shaft. These data support the hypothesis that a compressed cross-sectional profile may play a key role in reducing self-noise of the vibrissae.
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