Since the birth of anthropology, and through an adolescent experiment with phrenology, science has wondered about the origin of the human nose, and it’s relation to the rest of the body. Was there a connection between greater muscle mass in men and larger noses?

No beastly snout, a man’s nose is a mark of distinction sometimes associated with character and vitality — as seen in Gogol’s early 19th century Russia. Awakening one morning, Major Kovalyov expresses horror to discover this synecdoche missing from his face, in The Nose. During a brief separation from its owner, the nose acquires a life of its own, even achieving a government rank in civil service, while the poor man draws ridicule for his denuded face. In the end, the man awakens again one morning to find himself restored, and relieved.

Other stories throughout history also link a man’s nose to vitality, although Shakespeare’s King Falstaff pokes fun at his henchman’s luminous nose, boozily leading the way like a torch, and Pinocchio’s elongated nose signifies a failure to tell the truth.

But why a man’s nose would outgrow a woman’s by adolescence had long remained a mystery to scientists studying sexual dimorphism in humans. Larger noses seen in men, and among archaic humans including the Neanderthal, were associated with a greater need for oxygen to fuel a larger mass of muscle and tissue, a new study found.

Heretofore, the body of research had shown men to have not only larger noses but larger nasal cavities and airways behind the nose too. Also, science understood that men draw more oxygen from nasal breathing than women — with “mouth-breather” a derogative for anyone, man or woman. Still, the two pieces of evidence had remained side by side, not yet connected by research, and scientists wondered if the nose, aside from its olfactory function, might also serve another purpose.

To answer questions about nasal morphology in humans, investigators first assessed the ontogeny of nose growth in men and women, ascertaining what any 7th grader has observed: a “greater positive allometry” in boys compared to girls. During puberty, a boy’s nose grows much larger than a girl’s, on average.

Led by anthropologist Nathan E. Holton from the University of Iowa, investigators measured facial and skeletal features of 20 males and 18 females ages 3-20, observing 290 data points. They found that men develop larger noses in relation to women during adolescence, and that noses differ from other facial features, which diverge in size earlier in development.

“As body size increases in males and females during growth, males exhibit a disproportionate increase in nasal size,” Holton said, according to LiveScience. “This follows the same pattern as energetic variables such as oxygen consumption.”

The new discovery reaffirms to anthropologists an imperative to look further and wider when considering systemic factors in craniofacial development, given the answer, all along, was right beneath their nose. The study, researchers say, may also inform further investigation of patterns of craniofacial evolution throughout the genus Homo, from Erectus to Pinocchio.

Source: Holton, Nathan, Yokley, Todd R., Froehle, Andrew W., Southard, Thomas E. Ontogenetic Scaling Of The Human Nose In A Longitudinal Sample: Implications For Genus Homo Facial Evolution. American Journal Of Physical Anthropology. 2013.