STRANGE BUT TRUE- Tailprints? Whirls and loops enhance friction


Q. What's on the tail of a New World monkey that we humans have as well, and essentially for the same biological reason, though for us their cultural function gets most of the attention? –St. J. Davis

A. Fingerprints, a.k.a. friction ridges or dermatoglyphics (literally, finger writing), which appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet of many mammals, says Nina Jablonski in Skin: A Natural History. In humans, these tiny ridges display recognizable designs and patterns, such as whorls, loops, visible openings from the pores of sweat glands, plus end points, branch points, etc. Their unique places and orientations never change throughout life. Statistical analysis of these today virtually eliminates the chance of incorrectly identifying someone.

Zoologists know that the function of "fingerprints" in nature is to enhance friction and to promote a more secure grip. Among primates, dermatoglyphics appear not only on the palms and soles, but also on the undersides of the prehensile tails of New World monkeys, serving as a sort of "fifth hand" for swinging from tree limb to tree limb.

Q. What do speeding race cars do to speeding hearts? –A. Taylor

A. Possibly push them beyond the speed limit, with loud noise, extreme conditions, high G-forces all being factors. When Championship Car driver Simon P. becomes nervous or excited behind the wheel, his racing team knows right away, thanks to an in-race heart monitor being tested by Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Jennifer Cummings, says Jodie Valade in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"What just happened, Simon?" a voice crackles over the headset. Turns out he was holding his breath to put all his strength into a difficult turn. "People think drivers aren't good athletes," says Simon, "but there are no other athletes I know of– except maybe cyclists– who maintain a heart rate of 180-200 (beats per minute) for two hours straight. It's tremendously physical."

The experimental monitors are stitched into the fireproof racing shirts, with wireless transmission hookup sensitive enough to accurately record heart activity. If, for example, a driver is holding his breath, breathing classes might be recommended to learn to maintain a steady supply of oxygen to the heart. Simon's heart rate once hit 197, not an everyday level to strive for, says Valade. His off-day workouts consist of the rowing machine and swimming, where he tries to maintain at 130-170 to simulate race conditions– and help put him in front of the pack.

Q. Can you name the frozen dessert with so many spellings that listing them could take longer than eating a bowl of the fruity, milky treat? –T. LaBua

A. Is it sherbet or sherbert? The term entered English in the early 17th century, from an Ottoman Turkish word for "cold fruit drink," says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage. 

Beginning with as many as 14 English spellings, it evolved two that reflected its principal pronunciations. By the 18th century, sherbet had become dominant, though sherbert made a 20th-century comeback and is now accepted as a second choice in some dictionaries. Still, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English cautions that you may encounter purists who will accept only "sherbet." Interestingly, word historians have traced the fruit-flavored ice called "sorbet" to French, which obtained it from Italian, which obtained it from the same Turkish word that gave us "sherbet."

Q. Upon arrival at a reported church fire, what did the startled fire department discover instead of flames and smoke? –W. Walton

A. The dark plume visible over the steeple was in fact a thick swarm of insects, maybe mosquitos or midges, that had gathered above the nearby trees, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Many insects gather in flying "leks," or large aggregates of males awaiting a passing mate, says Montana State University entomologist Robert Peterson. They often gather above high points in the terrain, such as trees, hills, houses, even people in flat areas, and can number in the thousands adds Walker. So the vertical, well-defined bug plumes may be mistaken for smoke and even suggest the smoke of a fire.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at