AbstractA detailed understanding of structure and stability of nanowires is critical for applications. Atomic resolution imaging of ultrathin single crystalline Au nanowires using aberration-corrected microscopy reveals an intriguing relaxation whereby the atoms in the close-packed atomic planes normal to the growth direction are displaced in the axial direction leading to wrinkling of the (111) atomic plane normal to the wire axis. First-principles calculations of the structure of such nanowires confirm this wrinkling phenomenon, whereby the close-packed planes relax to form saddle-like surfaces. Molecular dynamics studies of wires with varying diameters and different bounding surfaces point to the key role of surface stress on the relaxation process. Using continuum mechanics arguments, we show that the wrinkling arises due to anisotropy in the surface stresses and in the elastic response, along with the divergence of surface-induced bulk stress near the edges of a faceted structure. The observations provide new understanding on the equilibrium structure of nanoscale systems and could have important implications for applications in sensing and actuation.