What Does That Dangly Thing in the Back of Your Throat Do?

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Uvula image via Shutterstock

The uvula is one of the weirdest looking features of the human body. Yet despite its infamy, scientists have spent centuries puzzling over its function.

The hangy ball's full name is the “palatine uvula,” referring to its location on your soft palate. Not to be confused with the uvula vermis, a lobe of the cerebellum, or the uvula vesicae, in the urinary bladder. 

Through history, scientists have had many theories about the uvula. Among them:

That it once helped guide the flow of food and water, and, in humans, was a mere remnant from previous mammals who had to lean down to eat and drink.
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That it induces the gag reflex. And therefore isn’t the best place to get a piercing.
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That it contributed to “chronic cough.” A problem that 19th-century doctors treated with a “simple” “clipping” procedure.
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That it contributes to cardiovascular problems like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and sleep apnea.

Even today, some doctors treat sleep apnea by having the uvula removed. Unpleasant as that sounds, much of the recent uvular research has come about by studying uvulopalatopharyngoplasty patients (uvula-less people). Several such studies have concluded that the uvula is really good at excreting saliva. A lot of saliva, in a really short amount of time. Another study compared the soft palates of eight different mammals, and found that a small, underdeveloped uvula was found in only two baboons.

Don’t Leave Us Hanging

So what does the dangly throat thing do? Because the uvula is basically unique to humans, scientists basically agree that it primarily serves as an accessory to speech. You know what it’s like to have your throat go dry before talking to a large group? The uvula is there to provide the proper lubrication for complicated human speech. In time, we’ll likely learn that the uvula does some other cool things to boot, but to quote one study on the subject, it “may be another marker of human evolution that differentiates man from other mammals.” For now, that’s pretty cool.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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A Prehistoric Great White Shark Nursery Has Been Discovered in Chile

Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
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Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) may be one of the most formidable and frightening apex predators on the planet today, but life for them isn’t as easy as horror movies would suggest. Due to a slow growth rate and the fact that they produce few offspring, the species is listed as vulnerable to extinction.

There is a way these sharks ensure survival, and that is by creating nurseries—a designated place where great white shark babies (called pups) are protected from other predators. Now, researchers at the University of Vienna and colleagues have discovered these nurseries occurred in prehistoric times.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Jamie A. Villafaña from the university’s Institute of Palaeontology describes a fossilized nursery found in Coquimbo, Chile. Researchers were examining a collection of fossilized great white shark teeth between 5 and 2 million years old along the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru when they noticed a disproportionate number of young shark teeth in Coquimbo. There was also a total lack of sexually mature animals' teeth, which suggests the site was used primarily by pups and juveniles as a nursery.

Though modern great whites are known to guard their young in designated areas, the researchers say this is the first example of a paleo-nursery. Because the climate was much warmer when the paleo-nursery was in use, the researchers think these protective environments can deepen our understanding of how great white sharks can survive global warming trends.