Whiskers help dormice navigate shrinking habitats, research shows

  • Footage reveals dormice use their hypersensitive whiskers to explore their tree canopy at night
  • Dormice avoided crossing the space between habitats, leading to a change in their behaviour
  • Hedgerows can help fill gaps in habitats to help the endangered species’ survival

The existence of the UK’s endangered hazel dormouse is under threat as gaps in tree canopies are leaving the creatures unable to use their hypersensitive whiskers to naturally cross between habitats, a new study reveals. 

 

Dr Kendra Arkley, Research Fellow in the Active Touch Laboratory at the University of Sheffield, monitored and recorded high-speed videos of dormice and their whisker movements using a camera that captures 500 frames per second.

The videos captured dormice walking on a flat surface, a sloped surface, exploring a gap, crossing a gap, jumping and exploring freely in flat and climbing arenas in near darkness using infrared light illumination.

Gaps in the tree canopy proved to be a major problem for the dormice meaning that gaps in their habitats need to be connected in order to help preserve numbers. Building hedgerows, habitat corridors and dormouse bridges is critical to this species’ survival.

Whisking

The footage revealed that dormice actively and purposefully move their whiskers to gather relevant information from their canopy at night.

Carried out at the Wildwood Trust in Kent, the research into the endangered species published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A, shows that dormice use active whisker sensing.

Like other rodents, dormice move their whiskers back and forth continuously in a motion called ‘whisking’ to navigate small gaps and to explore their environment.

Dr Arkley said: “We’ve shown that a truly arboreal (tree-living) and nocturnal species, the hazel dormouse, depends on its highly sensitive facial whiskers to travel around its habitat. By rapidly moving the whiskers to make contact with features such as branches, dormice sense where to move next.”

Behaviour changes

The creatures avoid crossing open spaces between habitats so even very small gaps in the canopy can have an impact on dormouse behaviour.

In recent years, there has been a marked decline in dormouse numbers in the UK due to habitat loss, isolation and fragmentation.

Dr Arkley said: “Gaining access to this shy and protected species through the Wildwood Trust has been a rare and invaluable insight into the behaviour of wild rodents, and has implications for the way in which British woodlands and hedgerows are managed. Joining up dormouse habitats with structures such as hedgerows will allow them to find food and shelter in the dark using their finely-tuned sense of touch.”

This research was carried out at the Wildwood Trust in Kent, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and funded by a British Ecological Society (BES) Research Grant. Dr Robyn Grant, the research lead from Manchester Metropolitan University, is also a former academic from the University of Sheffield.

Footage of the dormice captured during the research is available here: