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This article is from
Creation 27(3):36, June 2005

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Why nail biters don’t cry

by and

Scientists have just found out what you always wanted to know: why do fingernails, when nibbled or torn,1 tend to tear across the nail rather than downwards towards the nail bed? University of Manchester researcher Roland Ennos is a habitual nail biter. Maybe that’s why he (along with other researchers) tested the toughness of snippets from students’ fingernails.2 They found it takes twice the energy to cut them lengthwise as it does crosswise.

And that’s just as well, says Ennos. ‘Otherwise, we would be in agony throughout our lives, because every tear would damage our nail bed, inflicting great pain and incurring infection.’

 The energy needed to cut through [our nails], is as much as what’s needed for horses’ hoofs

Fingernails are unique to humans and other primates. They not only protect the top of our fingertips, but also help keep the skin at the tips of our fingers in place, making it easier for us to hold and manipulate objects. And now Ennos and his colleagues, analyzing nails under the electron microscope, have identified why nails don’t tear toward the nail bed.

Nails comprise three layers of tissue containing the protein keratin. The central layer was found to have keratin fibres parallel to the half moon at the base of the nail. These fibres stop breaks from running down the nail. The two outer layers have randomly arranged keratin fibres, and they provide strength.

How much strength? ‘The energy needed to cut through [our nails], is as much as what’s needed for horses’ hoofs’, says Ennos. ‘It’s quite amazing.’3

If cracks were to run upwards instead of across, it could lead to infection.

So, fingernails are as strong as horses’ hooves! Zoologist John Gosline, of the University of British Columbia, has seen the same orientation of cracks in horses’ hooves as in human fingernails. ‘Nails and hoofs are external structures that experience a mechanically stressful environment’, he says, explaining why the orientation of fibres is so important. In the case of horses, if cracks were to run upwards instead of across, it could lead to infection, laming and death.

How could anyone say that this crucial design feature of hooves and fingernails has come about separately in horses and humans by accident—the result of evolution? The evidence surely shouts of a Designer (Romans 1:20).

We are indeed most fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

References and notes

  1. Either accidentally or deliberately for grooming. Return to text.
  2. Sanides, S., Nails and hooves: designed for wear and tears, The Scientist 18(4):12, the-scientist.com, 2 March 2004. Return to text.
  3. Fingernails have the strength of hooves, New Scientist 181(2433):19, 2004. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

P. T.
I have two horses, one of which has had "seedy toe" for quite a number of years, with several occasional cracks as well. None of these has progressed much further up the hoof wall, and the cracking can be halted by a horizontal line being filed into the hoof wall above the split/crack. Frequent trimming & proper treatment enables these to eventually wear out (=grow out/be trimmed out).
I also have a crack in my fingernail but the cause is (mysterious) damage to the "quick" at the base of the nail. It's a nuissance as my fingernail is always split, and filing horizontally at the base of my fingernail makes no difference to the split. So I have to keep the "working edge" of my fingernail smoothly filed to prevent catching and tearing.

But what's interesting I guess, is that neither my horse nor myself has any pain attached to these nail/hoof issues, as the nerves at the nail/hoof attachment position, are not interfered with. Because of the amazing design of hoof & nail, we can both still operate well even while the work surface is at times quite damaged.

I'm very thankful for that, because - "no foot, no horse" - and I suppose I could also say, no fingernail, no hand.
M. S.
Cute, (or should I say "cuticle") article. However it slipped up with the "other primates" comment. I'm not sure how much thought is given to correct taxonomy among most scientific creationists, but the primate moniker should be avoided if at all possible. Even Aristotle was wiser than to group humans with primates. In truth, humanity is a separate taxon, a single-species Kingdom even by pagan standards. And in the light of Christianity there is a King as well!
Hans G.
Do those 'by chance' people think, they exist by chance? If you don't exist has the same value as if you exist.
For me, my sperm won the race among Millions of competitors, it was the best to be the fastest; that's why I couldn't become to be by chance or cheating.

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