Health & Science
The real-life ‘Nessie’
Forget the fabled Loch Ness Monster: Paleontologists in Scotland have just unveiled the fossilized skeleton of a reallife underwater predator, which stalked the oceans 170 million years ago. Dubbed the Storr Lochs Monster, the dolphin-like ichthyosaur was the size of a small boat and had a long, pointed head filled with hundreds of cone-shaped teeth that it used to feed on fish and squid. It lived alongside the dinosaurs in the Middle Jurassic period, a time that saw the emergence of some of the first mammals and birds, but which has yielded very few fossils. The near-complete skeleton was first discovered back in 1966, by the manager of a remote hydropower station on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. At the time, local paleontologists lacked the necessary tools and expertise to safely extract the fossil from the rocks in which it was found. But the skeleton has now been removed from its stony tomb, and scientists believe it could represent an entirely new species. “People don’t realize that real sea monsters used to exist,” lead researcher Steve Brusatte tells National Geographic. “They were bigger, scarier, and more fascinating than the myth of Nessie.”
Antibacterial soap ban
Bad news for germophobes: That antibacterial soap you use is probably doing you more harm than good, reports The Washington Post. Last week, the FDA banned the sale of consumer products containing any one of 19 antibacterial chemicals, including two of the most common, triclosan and triclocarban. The ban, which will affect most of the 2,000 antibacterial products on the market, was proposed three years ago after studies suggested that long-term exposure to the chemicals was linked to bacterial resistance, hormone disruption, and cancer. The FDA asked manufacturers to prove that their soaps and washes were both safe and effective at preventing the spread of germs. They failed to do so. “We have no scientific evidence that [antibacterial products] are any better than plain soap and water,” says the FDA’s Janet Woodcock. The companies have been given a year to remove the ingredients from their soaps or pull the products off store shelves entirely. The FDA is also looking into the safety and effectiveness of the consumer hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes commonly used in hospitals and other health-care establishments.
Africa’s missing elephants
Poaching and habitat loss have helped wipe out one-third of Africa’s savannah elephant population in just seven years, a landmark census of African wildlife has found. Nearly 40 years ago, there were an estimated 1.3 million elephants on the continent. That population had declined to about 500,000 by 2007, and the three-year aerial survey of 18 countries found that only 352,271 remain—an annual species decline rate of 8 per cent, reports CNN.com. Conservationists warn that if this trend continues, another 50 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants may be lost over the next decade. Although numbers are stable or even rising in some areas, including South Africa and parts of Kenya, they have plummeted in Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The biggest threat comes from poachers, who kill elephants using everything from poisontipped spears to grenades. They are driven by the demand for ivory, which has swollen in recent years because of the rapidly growing middle class in Asia. Researchers hope the findings will raise awareness of the problem. “Until we flew the aerial survey, no one had any solid evidence on the status of elephants,” says Mike Chase, the lead scientist of the Great Elephant Census. “We are armed with information now—we have solid reliable estimates as a baseline and benchmark to shock people out of apathy.”
Health scare of the week Air pollution and Alzheimer’s
Breathing air polluted by traffic fumes may be harmful not only to your heart and lungs but also to your brain. In a new study, researchers discovered millions of tiny particles of magnetite, an iron oxide, in samples of brain tissue from people who had lived in busy cities. Magnetite nanoparticles that occur naturally in the brain are angular in shape, but the vast majority of these particles were round— indicating they formed from the burning of fuel at high temperatures. These pollutionderived particles can generate unstable molecules, which can be harmful to other, more important molecules. In high concentrations, they have been linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. “Iron is very reactive, so it’s almost certainly going to do some damage to the brain,” study co-author David Allsop tells BBC.com. “It can’t be benign.” The World Health Organization has warned that air pollution causes up to 3 million premature deaths every year.