Beards may serve a higher, protective purpose, says U of U research

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Beards – we have all seen them. Maybe someone in your family is known for sporting one, or you notice your favorite celebrity suddenly rocking some facial hair. We are all familiar with the possible benefits of a beard – keeping you warm, looking like a lumberjack for Halloween, or hiding your ‘baby face’ appearance. New research out of Utah says a beard may also serve a higher purpose – protecting you from punches.

Three researchers from the University of Utah – David Carrier, Steven Naleway, and recent graduate Ethan Beseris – have been awarded the 2021 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for studying whether beards serve an evolutionary purpose to protect your jaw in a fistfight. The U refers to these awards as lighthearted, presented by Marc Abrahams of science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. The awards are the counterpoint of the mainstream Nobel Prizes and aim to celebrate science that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”  The U study is among this year’s 10 awardees.

According to the U, this is the university’s first Ig Nobel Prize.

“Usually they give the awards to out-of-the-box questions, and that’s an important part of what science is about,” Carrier, an evolutionary biologist and professor in the School of Biological Sciences, tells the U. “I’m quite happy at this point.”

In April 2020, the study was published in Integrative Organismal Biology. Carrier has been pursuing this research for years, according to the U. He has been working to determine if, since humans are the only primates who fight with their fists, are there any parts of our anatomy that evolved with that.

SLIDESHOW: Famous beards

Carrier has already explored features unique to humans and their impact on fistfighting. You can learn more about that research here.

In this study focused on beards, the researchers covered a fiber epoxy composite material – to represent bone – with sheep fleece – representing facial hair. As the University explains, the researchers then dropped different weights on the makeshift faces. Overall, they found those with fleece – nay, a beard – absorbed 37% more energy than the hairless samples and could withstand 16% more force before breaking.

“The beard covers the mandible, which is one of the primary targets,” Carrier says. “And when it breaks, without an orthopedic surgeon you’re in big trouble. If you broke a jaw 5,000 years ago, that was a life-threatening injury.”

For more on this research, visit the U of U’s site.

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