Q. 39

The two openings

Answer :

The incredible proximity of the windpipe to the food pipe seems risky. As such, if the mechanism of the epiglottis fails – which it occasionally does, whereas swallowing (and hence coughing) it can be quite dangerous. This choking can even be lethal if the ingested pieces of food are large enough to block the passage of air.

It’s the epiglottis that separates the nasal cavity and the lower airway from the passage of food while swallowing. You see, when you breathe, this flap-like structure opens to allow the incoming air to pass through the windpipe and into the lungs. However, when you swallow food or any liquid, it closes (thereby shutting off the windpipe for a brief moment), so that the ingested material only goes down the esophagus (and not the windpipe).


On the outside, it seems that if, during our evolution, the windpipe had become completely separated from the gullet leading to the stomach, and then this problem would not exist. However, interestingly, the risks are compensated by far more important advantages that this positioning offers.


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First off, the ability to speak ‘properly’ (i.e., when words are enunciated precisely enough) depends on the directions of vocalizations coming out of the mouth through the lips.


All other critters have windpipes that intersect the esophagus much farther from the mouth. While this reduces their risk of choking on food, it also means that the only sounds they can produce are yelps, barks and growls, but not clear words like humans speak. t is important to note that animals still couldn’t speak, even if they had the same anatomical structures to produce sounds as we do, but that’s a different story altogether.


More specifically, it could be said that this positioning of the two ‘pipes’ is a result of natural selection and evolution that gave our primate ancestors the ability to communicate. This obviously proved to be a competitive edge over other species over an extended period of time.


Furthermore, we use the large cavities in our mouths and noses to moisten and heat the air that we breathe, which, in turn, makes it easier for the lungs to absorb oxygen. Finally, when we feel too hot, we use the air that we exhale to cool the body by blowing out hot steam from the inner surfaces of the mouth and nose.


In a nutshell, the current positioning of the trachea and the esophagus may seem a little risky, but it also simultaneously helps us to communicate and provides various others.


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