Dear Straight Dope:
My four year old daughter has been bugging me to find out what the uvula is for. I told her it's for snoring and making certain vocalizations in Arabic, but I don't know if it has any specific physiological purpose. She also wants to know if any animals have uvulas, or whether this thing is part of human anatomy only. Can you help?
SDStaff VegForLife replies:
I’m afraid this will have to be one of those “we’re not as smart as we’d like to be” lessons for Amelia, mom. The fact is that there isn’t any general consensus on the purpose of the uvula, that little flap of skin visible at the back of your mouth. Many physicians feel that the uvula is a vestigial anatomic structure without a significant function, while others feel that it has a role in speech and swallowing in that it participates in the sealing off of the nasopharynx during these activities. You are correct in telling Amelia that the uvula is involved in snoring (although I’m a little apprehensive about telling her that’s what it’s “for”); in fact, the uvula is often surgically removed in treatments for snoring and sleep apnea. This is often done with a laser now (isn’t everything?), and, although there are risks involved, the surgery is quite often effective.
The one part of your question that is easily answered is whether or not non-humans have uvulas: yes.
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