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Barrelettes without barrels in the American water shrew

Catania, KC;Catania, EH;Sawyer, EK;Leitch, DB;

Water shrews (Sorex palustris) depend heavily on their elaborate whiskers to navigate their environment and locate prey. They have small eyes and ears with correspondingly small optic and auditory nerves. Previous investigations have shown that water shrew neocortex is dominated by large representations of the whiskers in primary and secondary somatosensory cortex (S1 and S2). Flattened sections of juvenile cortex processed for cytochrome oxidase revealed clear borders of the whisker pad representation in S1, but no cortical barrels. We were therefore surprised to discover prominent barrelettes in brainstem of juvenile water shrews in the present investigation. These distinctive modules were found in the principal trigeminal nucleus (PrV), and in two of the three spinal trigeminal subnuclei (interpolaris--SpVi and caudalis--SpVc). Analysis of the shrew's whisker pad revealed the likely relationship between whiskers and barrelettes. Barrelettes persisted in adult water shrew PrV, but barrels were also absent from adult cortex. Thus in contrast to mice and rats, which have obvious barrels in primary somatosensory cortex and less clear barrelettes in the principal nucleus, water shrews have clear barrelettes in the brainstem and no barrels in the neocortex. These results highlight the diverse ways that similar mechanoreceptors can be represented in the central nervous systems of different species.