Our noses were shaped by the climate.

Science Daily sniffs out how weather patterns affect the shape of our family’s noses:

“We are interested in recent human evolution and what explains the evident variation in things like skin color, hair color and the face itself,” said Mark D. Shriver, professor of anthropology, Penn State. “We focused on nose traits that differ across populations and looked at geographical variation with respect to temperature and humidity.” The researchers noted today (Mar. 17) in PLOS Genetics that “An important function of the nose and nasal cavity is to condition inspired air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract.”

They considered a variety of nose measurements, looking at the width of the nostrils, the distance between nostrils, the height of the nose, nose ridge length, nose protrusion, external area of the nose and the area of the nostrils. The measurements were made using 3D facial imaging.

The researchers found that the width of the nostrils and the base of the nose measurements differed across populations more than could be accounted for by genetic drift, indicating a role for natural selection in the evolution of nose shape in humans. To show that the local climate contributed to this difference, the researchers looked at the spatial distribution of these traits and correlated them with local temperatures and humidity. They showed that the width of the nostrils is strongly correlated with temperature and absolute humidity The researchers noted that “the positive direction of the effects indicate that wider noses are more common in warm-humid climates, while narrower noses are more common in cold-dry climates.”

“It all goes back to Thompson’s Rule (Arthur Thompson),” said Shriver. “In the late 1800s he said that long and thin noses occurred in dry, cold areas, while short and wide noses occurred in hot, humid areas. Many people have tested the question with measurements of the skull, but no one had done measurements on live people.”

One purpose of the nose is to condition inhaled air so that it is warm and moist. The narrower nostrils seem to alter the airflow so that the mucous-covered inside of the nose can humidify and warm the air more efficiently. It was probably more essential to have this trait in cold and dry climates, said Shriver. People with narrower nostrils probably fared better and had more offspring than people with wider nostrils, in colder climates. This lead to a gradual decrease in nose width in populations living far away from the equator.

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