American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Ecogeographic variation in human nasal passages
Todd R. Yokley
Theoretically, individuals whose ancestors evolved in cold and/or dry climates should have greater nasal mucosal surface area relative to air volume of the nasal passages than individuals whose ancestors evolved in warm, humid climates. A high surface-area-to-volume (SA/V) ratio allows relatively more air to come in contact with the mucosa and facilitates more efficient heat and moisture exchange during inspiration and expiration, which would be adaptive in a cold, dry environment. Conversely, a low SA/V ratio is not as efficient at recapturing heat and moisture during expiration and allows for better heat dissipation, which would be adaptive in a warm, humid environment. To test this hypothesis, cross-sectional measurements of the nasal passages that reflect surface area and volume were collected from a sample of CT scans of patients of European and African ancestry. Results indicate that individuals of European descent do have higher SA/V ratios than individuals of African descent, but only when decongested. Otherwise, the two groups show little difference. This pattern of variation may be due to selection for different SA/V configurations during times of physical exertion, which has been shown to elicit decongestion. Relationships between linear measurements of the skeletal nasal aperture and cavity and cross-sectional dimensions were also examined. Contrary to predictions, the nasal index, the ratio of nasal breadth to nasal height, is not strongly correlated with internal dimensions. However, differences between the nasal indices of the two groups are highly significant. These results may be indicative of different adaptive solutions to the same problem.