What if Ned Stark read about hairy ears and bushy eyebrows?
You could see the wheels turning in Ned Stark’s mind as he slowly read out Baratheon name after Baratheon name, each followed by the phrase “black of hair.” Then, he read the name Joffrey Baratheon: “Golden-headed.” This moment set in motion more than seven seasons worth of Game of Thrones turmoil and award-winning television. As the audience, we didn’t need Ned to tell us what he discovered. His thought process was obvious: All Baratheons have the same hair color, which means Joffrey might not be a true Baratheon. Hair color, it turns out, is a little more complex than that—but it is heritable. Many of our traits seem to be passed down from generation to generation, including those traits associated with hair. So what if the book Ned was reading noted different traits? What if it said whether each person was “hairy of ear” or “bushy-eyebrowed”? These traits do seem to run in families, but are they genetic?
Scientists have made a lot of headway towards understanding the genetics of hair (whether a person’s hair is curly, whether it’s black or blonde, and whether it’s likely to thin with time). If you look at 100 people, you’re likely to see differences in how thick their eyebrows are and whether hair grows from their ears. Setting aside cosmetic reasons, this variability may be caused by differences in their DNA.
Researchers have observed that bushy eyebrows and hairy ears tend to be found in many members of a single family, and that both traits are more commonly found in males. Studies done in mice even show that changes in the DNA sequence in or near some genes may result in a mouse having no hair around its eyes. In combination, all of these findings indicate that there is likely a genetic component to these traits, but more research is needed before Ned Stark can justifiably take up arms against a hairy-eared king.1-3.
2Lee, Andrew C, et al. “Molecular Evidence for Absence of Y-Linkage of the Hairy Ears Trait.” European Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 12, no. 12, 2004, pp. 1077–1079., doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201271.