Wrinkles help fingers get a grip

Sid Perkins / ScienceNOW /


Published Jan 15, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

A long soak in the tub can wreak havoc on your fingertips, transforming your smooth digits into wrinkly eyesores. But this rumply skin may actually serve a purpose, according to a new study. It helps us get a stronger grip on slippery objects, especially those underwater.

Scientists long thought that wrinkly fingers were caused by osmosis-swelling of the outer layer of the skin as water seeped into cells. But experiments conducted in the past few years suggest that the wrinkles are instead produced by nerves that automatically trigger constriction of the blood vessels beneath the skin, reducing the volume of the tissues there.

Having something under the direct control of a nerve, even an involuntary one, suggests it serves an evolutionary purpose. But that raised the question of what function finger wrinkles have. In 2011, a team of neuroscientists proposed that the folds improved our grip on wet or submerged objects, just as the treads on tires help improve traction.

They designed an experiment where volunteers picked up 45 submerged objects such as glass marbles and lead fishing weights from a bin one at a time with their right hand, passed them through a postage stamp-sized hole in a barrier to their left hand, and then dropped them through another hole into a box. When test subjects had wrinkly fingertips, they completed the task about 12 percent faster