Sheep whiskers

Tuxedo_kitten

Note that the whisker positions on a cat are similar, but not identical, to those of my bottle lamb, Olive.

 

On Monday, April 6th, I wrote about my discovery that Olive, our bottle lamb, had long hairs — like cat whiskers — on her face, above and below her eyes. Since I regularly see her in close proximity as I feed bottles of milk replacer, I’ve been able to get a close look at these whiskers; and it made me wonder whether all sheep have them. After nearly fifteen years of shepherding, I had never really noticed them on any of my sheep, so over the past weeks I began looking at each of the sheep in my flock — up close and personal.

January was one of the only sheep willing to pose for my camera and show her whiskers - more obvious because of the very dark background

January was one of the only sheep willing to pose for my camera and show her “whiskers” above her right eye — more obvious because of the very dark background

I will admit that this has created a stir among our flock members. Being prey animals, sheep recognize human beings as predators. It is not only due to the way we move — directly toward whatever we want to investigate — it’s also in our physiology. For example, while prey animals have eyes spaced farther apart and to the sides, giving a wider angle of vision to watch for predators, humans (like other predators) tend to have eyes closer together at the front of the face, allowing them to focus on their prey. Although my sheep have come to trust me, they still know that humans are predators; and when the behavior of a predator changes, prey animals don’t trust that it will work in their favor. As I began to stare at the sheep’s faces, they began to get more and more nervous, probably wondering whether my intentions had changed.

As a result, it has taken me a lot of staring to try to figure out the whiskers — and even longer to get pictures of them. Sheep do have whiskers, much like a cat or dog, but I think there are a couple of reasons why I hadn’t noticed them until now. Unlike either of those other mammals, in sheep the whiskers are actually quite hard to see.

Nypsi's longer whiskers are intact around her eyes because the shearer had no wool to shear in that area on her face

Nypsi’s longer whiskers are intact around her eyes because the shearer had no wool to clip in that area of her face

A sheep has these long hairs in many places on the face, especially above and below the eyes and to either side of the nose and mouth. I can’t tell you how long they actually are because — and this is the first reason I haven’t noticed them before — when the sheep are sheared, the whiskers are taken off when the face is clipped. This means that during the time when I am the most up-close with flock members, their longer facial hairs are nearly gone, having been lopped off only weeks before during shearing. Although they regrow at a faster rate than the hair or wool on the face, they don’t become really noticeable (even when one is actively looking) until months after shearing — around the time the sheep are spending nearly all of their time out in the pastures.

At this angle with the dark background, you can just make out some of Lisbeth's longer hairs on her face

At this angle with the dark background, you can just make out some of Lisbeth’s longer hairs on her face — see above her left eye?

The other thing I noticed was that the color of the whiskers blends in with the surrounding hair of the face. Unless you have the perfect angle — and ideally, a contrasting background — you simply can’t see them. I’ve taken two different pictures of Lisbeth (I actually took about twenty, but these two are the best at making the point!). The first shows what is left of her facial hairs, and the second is from a different angle. You can see how they blend in unless you are at the perfect angle! Keep in mind that what looks like whiskers over the eye on the left in the photo below is actually folds of the coat – even with this photo enlarged, I could find no trace of those interesting hairs!

From this angle, Lisbeth's longer eyelashes are much harder to see - even though this photo is better focused!

From this angle, Lisbeth’s longer eyelashes are much harder to see, even though this photo is better focused!

So now I’ve come to realize that sheep do have whiskers, although not quite in the same places that cats or dogs do. Although all of these mammals have longer hairs over the eyes, on the cheeks, and on either side of the nose, sheep also have them under their eyes. All of this has made me wonder why sheep have them at all. What purpose do they serve? It seems possible that they provide tactile feedback when grazing, but it seems a curious way to get this information, since their eyes are right there and can alert them of danger or of tall grass good for eating. Yet there they are — each one of my sheep has these same hairs to some degree. Some were sheared off in late January and are regrowing; others have long whiskers on one side and short on the other (having lost only half during shearing), and yet others have a full set even now.

This has been an interesting investigation! It isn’t often that I discover a physical trait in my sheep that I hadn’t realized in the fifteen years that I’ve been shepherding! I’ve searched online for more information, but have found nothing about sheep and their whiskers, so I suspect I’m not the only one who has missed seeing what is right in front of my eyes — and theirs!

 

Photo of “Tuxedo kitten” by TimVickers at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuxedo_kitten.jpg#/media/File:Tuxedo_kitten.jpg

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2 Comments

  • Jane says:

    i love reading about this investigation. I am a Middle School Science teacher and find that persuading people, my students and others, to take a new look at things they think they know all about, is a seriously difficult task. I think it is the most fun in the world.

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