Ever wondered why your fingers turn wrinkled and pruned in the bath? Well now we know why, thanks to the new research done by scientists at Newcastle University. According to the study that the team of evolutionary biologist have published in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, pruning fingers helped our prehistoric ancestors gather food from wet vegetation or streams.

The wrinkles that occur on the fingers apparently make it easier for us to hold wet objects, rather than just being a result of the skin swelling, as was previously thought. The researchers theorized that because the nervous system was reacting in order to adapt to the water, there must still be some evolutionary reason for its occurrence; otherwise evolution would have eradicated such a useless genetic mutation.

They conducted a rather strange experiment, which involved volunteers trying to pick up marbles from other bottom of a water filled basin with one hand, and then pass the marble through a small tube to the other hand, that then put it into another container. They found that people with wrinkled fingers always completed the task faster than those with smooth fingers, and the fact that wrinkled fingers do not aid grip when handling dry things suggests that this ‘pruning’, has a specific evolutionary purpose.

Though still in the early days of their research Dr Smulders, as member of the team, seems optimistic about the validity of their theory, ‘We have tested the first prediction of the hypothesis – that handling should be improved. What we haven’t done yet is show why – to see if the wrinkles remove the water, or whether it’s some other feature of those wrinkles such as a change in their stickiness or plasticity, or something else.’

Though catching fish with our bare hands is no longer a past time favored by the present generation, the research does help to explain why our fingers turn into raisins whilst we soak in our warm tubs. The next step for the scientists will be to see if our primate brethren share this same genetic quirk and I for one am all for treating chimps to a day out at a spa in the name of science.

[Lucy Howell]

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