The Mystery of Wrinkly-When-Wet Fingers, Solved

Wrinkly Fingers

Wikimedia Commons: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Mystery of the century, you guys. No, the millenium. All times. A new paper in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution has a new answer to the eternal question: why do our fingers and toes get all wrinkly after bathtime? The answer: traction.

The old solution is that wrinkling is simply the result of your fingers and toes absorbing water after a long period of being submerged. But there are problems with this! First: why is it only our fingers and toes that get wrinkly? Second: why is this such an unusual trait among mammals (only humans and macaques get wrinkly)? Third: why, if this is a simple tale of osmosis, do our fingers and toes cease to wrinkle when nerves to them are cut?

The paper, which you can read here, suggests that wrinkled fingers actually provide drainage for water so as to ensure greater traction, just like tires on a car. By examining the soaked fingers of 28 subjects, the scientists discovered that each finger showed a similar pattern of wrinkles: as the New York Times puts it, "unconnected channels diverging away from one another as they got more distant from the fingertips." That allows water to drain away more efficiently from the fingers as they are pressed against an object, giving more surface area and a firmer grip.

Of course, this is all just a theory, and the scientists still have to study whether these precise rivulets actually do provide a better grip, as well as why the trait is found only in these few species. Still, it's a major step to answering the question we all asked as children (or as privileged adults with hot tubs).