I know, that title is a lot to live up to. But I think this little nugget manages to do the trick.
Retired American astronaut Frank Borman once said, "Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit." Borman was likely talking about our heroic ventures into the vastness of outer space. But I think the curious little discoveries we make on a day-to-day basis equally demonstrate the veracity of Borman's observation. Even -- or perhaps especially -- the seemingly insignificant ones that make our world more interesting.
To wit, have you ever wondered why your fingers and toes "wrinkle" when submerged in water for a period of time? There is, of course, the physiological explanation, which is all well and fine. But I mean to ask the question more deeply than that, as in: why is it that our bodies should be designed in such a way that our fingers and toes "wrinkle" when submerged in water for a period of time?
It seems like the sort of silly question you would get from a child, but have you ever really thought about it? Me neither. I'd generally chalked it up to, "That's just how these bodies of ours work. It's an anomaly without too much significance."
Contrary to popular belief, the wrinkle-effect on our fingers may not be caused by water absorption. Instead, pruney fingers may be a valuable adaptation that allows us to grip objects when it is wet. Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist at 2AI Labs in Idaho, US, compares our fingertips to the tires of a car, and suggests that the wrinkles may act like rain treads, creating channels that allow water to drain away when our fingers are pressed against a wet surface.
Changizi and his team studied photos of 28 wrinkled fingers. They observed that all of them had the same pattern—long, unconnected channels branching from a point at the top of the finger. Changizi explains that when we press down with a finger, we apply pressure from the tip backwards. The flat part of our fingers acts like a plateau where water can pool, which is why wrinkles form here—to channel the water away.
Changizi now wants to see if mammals that live in wet habitats are more likely to develop wrinkled fingers. After observing photos of bathing Japanese macaques, he found a photograph of one of the macaques with wrinkly fingers; leading him to believe that it’s most likely other bathing animals will have the same result.
The ultimate test will be to see if people with wrinkled fingers are better at gripping in wet conditions. Although the experiments are only in their pilot phase, Changizi says that the results are promising to support his theory.
Not only is it awesome that our pruney digits may well be a valuable evolutionary adaptation, it also makes a certain amount sense when you stop to think about it. And just like that, the world gets a little bit cooler.