Absolute humidity and the human nose: A reanalysis of climate zones and their influence on nasal form and function

Scott D. Maddux, Todd R. Yokley, Bohumil M. Svoma, Robert G. Franciscus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Objectives: Investigations into the selective role of climate on human nasal variation commonly divide climates into four broad adaptive zones (hot-dry, hot-wet, cold-dry, and cold-wet) based on temperature and relative humidity. Yet, absolute humidity—not relative humidity—is physiologically more important during respiration. Here, we investigate the global distribution of absolute humidity to better clarify ecogeographic demands on nasal physiology. Methods: We use monthly observations from the Climatic Research Unit Timeseries 3 (CRU TS3) database to construct global maps of average annual temperature, relative humidity and absolute humidity. Further, using data collected by Thomson and Buxton (1923) for over 15,000 globally-distributed individuals, we calculate the actual amount of heat and water that must be transferred to inspired air in different climatic regimes to maintain homeostasis, and investigate the influence of these factors on the nasal index. Results: Our results show that absolute humidity, like temperature, generally decreases with latitude. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that environments typically characterized as “cold-wet” actually exhibit low absolute humidities, with values virtually identical to cold-dry environments and significantly lower than hot-wet and even hot-dry environments. Our results also indicate that strong associations between the nasal index and absolute humidity are, potentially erroneously, predicated on individuals from hot-dry environments possessing intermediate (mesorrhine) nasal indices. Discussion: We suggest that differentially allocating populations to cold-dry or cold-wet climates is unlikely to reflect different selective pressures on respiratory physiology and nasal morphology—it is cold-dry, and to a lesser degree hot-dry environments, that stress respiratory function. Our study also supports assertions that demands for inspiratory modification are reduced in hot-wet environments, and that expiratory heat elimination for thermoregulation is a greater selective pressure in such environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-320
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2016


  • climatic adaptation
  • ecogeographic variation
  • nasal index
  • respiration
  • thermoregulation


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