RealClearScience Quick and Clear Science

Brief and Straightforward Analysis of the Latest Research

"The Coast of Giants": Young Men From Croatia Are the Tallest in the World

Ross Pomeroy - April 18, 2019


A study recently published to PeerJ has found that 18-year-old men from the Dalmatia region of Croatia are the tallest in the world for their age bracket, averaging a daunting 183.7 centimeters, a little more than six feet tall. That's just .1 centimeters short of Dutch men, who currently hold the overall title for tallest at any age. Still these young Croatian men tower over their age-matched counterparts in the United States, standing at 175.3 centimeters, China, at 167.1 centimeters, and even nearby Lithuania, at 181.3 centimeters.

The researchers, led by Pavel Grasgruber of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, measured the height of 1,803 males from 66 different high schools in 23 separate towns across the west coast of Croatia, the Adriatic, between between April 2015 and May 2017.

The young men's stature is particularly impressive considering Croatia's depressed economic conditions relative to the rest of Europe, leading to a relatively poor diet for the average Croat, the researchers write. This suggests their prodigious height can be attributed to genetics.

Previous research from Grasgruber linked people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Netherlands, Croatia, and Montenegro to the Upper Paleolithic Gravettian culture, who dwelled across Europe between 21,000 and 33,000 years ago. Remains of Male Gravettians suggest they stood around six-feet-tall, an imposing height for the time, when other humans were much shorter.

The Paradoxes of a Martian Ocean

Ross Pomeroy - April 8, 2019


The notion that Mars once hosted an ancient, watery ocean is intellectually seductive. Not only does it make the Red Planet seem much more like our own, it raises hopes for finding evidence of hypothetical life that once swam the Martian seas.


In 2016, scientists announced that they had uncovered evidence that two mega-tsunamis once blasted across the Martian surface, likely sparked by asteroid impacts. Images taken with NASA's Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the Mars Global Surveyor seemed to show boulder and sediment deposits from tsunamis that overran and buried ancient shorelines.

Researchers Martin Turbet and François Forget at the French National Center for Scientific Research were intrigued by these findings but simultaneously skeptical. In a new paper published to Scientific Reports, they detail a key paradox challenging the existence of an ancient Martian ocean and any accompanying tsunamis.

"If cold, the ocean should have been entirely frozen shortly after its formation, thus preventing the formation of tsunami events. If warm, the ice-free ocean should have produced fluvial erosion of Hesperian Mars terrains much more extensively than previously reported," they write.

An Ancient Four-Legged Whale Looked Like a Giant Otter

Ross Pomeroy - April 5, 2019


To call Pakicetus (pitctured below) a "whale" defies intuition. Between three and six feet in length, with four legs, fur, and a long snout, the roughly 48 million-year-old mammal looks more like a dog than, say, a minke whale. But the evolutionary descendants of this long extinct creature have far more in common with the giants of the sea than the canines in our homes.

The giveaway is the skull. A bony wall surrounds the ear region in Pakicetus, just like it does in all living whales. The resemblance is uncanny, a likeness distinct from all other mammals.

An ancient whale originally unearthed in 2011 also bears the hallmark skull of its evolutionary relatives. Now, eight years later, it has been officially entered into the scientific record. As described by its discoverers from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in a paper published to Current Biology, Peregocetus pacificus is the first indisputable four-legged whale that swam in the Pacific Ocean.

Fossils of the earliest whales, those still sporting four legs, have almost exclusively been found on the Indian subcontinent. Peregocetus pacificus was dug up in Peru, on the other side of the planet! Lead author Olivier Lambert and his colleagues speculate that P. pacificus and its ancestors might have reached the western shores of South America traveling first around Africa, then to the southern tip of South America, before finally turning north.

Schematic drawings of the articulated skeleton of P. pacificus showing the main preserved bones, in a hypothetical swimming and terrestrial posture.

Study Identifies Seven Universal Moral Codes

Ross Pomeroy - March 21, 2019


Anthropologists at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at University of Oxford have identified seven universal moral codes.

Conducting an extensive search through ethnographic data spanning 300 years from unique 603 sources on 60 different societies spread all across the world, Senior Researcher Oliver Scott Curry, Postdoctoral Researcher Daniel Austin Mullins, and Chair of Social Anthropology Harvey Whitehouse found that helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession were viewed as universally positive traits.

Their findings are published in Current Anthropology.

The names and locations of the sixty cultures studied.

In the ethnographic literature on the studied societies, these qualities and actions were mentioned positively 961 times and negatively only once. The single exception was seen amongst the Chuuk people who predominantly dwell in the Federated States of Micronesia, a chain of islands in the Western Pacific. Some in Chuuk society believe that "to steal openly from others is admirable in that it shows a person’s dominance and demonstrates that he is not intimidated by the aggressive powers of others."

Wolves Can Cooperate With Humans Just as Well as Dogs

Ross Pomeroy - March 12, 2019


In a new study, researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria demonstrated that human-raised wolves are just as successful as trained dogs at working with humans to solve cooperative tasks, suggesting that dogs' well-known ability to cooperate with humans did not arise purely from domestication.

The work is published in Scientific Reports.

Animal behaviorist Dr. Friederike Range and her team worked with fifteen grey wolves and twelve mixed-breed dogs that had been raised at the Wolf Science Center since they were puppies. Working with the trainers with whom they had the best relationship with, the animals were tested in various trials and conditions of the cooperative loose-string paradigm, pictured and described by the researchers below.

"Successful cooperation was defined as the animal coordinating its actions with the human partner so that they pulled simultaneously on the two ends of the rope thereby moving the platform forward allowing them to access the out-of-reach food. If only one partner pulled, the string would come loose and the trial was coded as a failure."

'Investing' in LEGO Sets Returns 11% Per Year, Outperforming the S&P500

Ross Pomeroy - February 22, 2019


An analysis by two Russian economists has found that "investing" in new, unopened LEGO sets yielded an average annual return of 11% between 1987 and 2015, outperforming the Standard and Poor's 500 Stock Market Index over that time. Moreover, prices of old LEGO sets tended to increase steadily year over year, experiencing less volatility than the stock market.

Researchers Victoria Dobrynskaya and Julia Kishilova, both based at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, derived their results from data aggregated by LEGO investing resource Brick Picker. Brick Picker has tracked tens of thousands of completed LEGO auctions on eBay. As thousands of LEGO sets are traded each and every day, the data set was quite robust.

Diving into the numbers, Dobrynskaya and Kishilova discovered that certain LEGO set characteristics resulted in higher or lower returns. Small sets with an average of 113 pieces and huge sets with over 3,000 pieces earned more than medium-sized sets. Some themes also increased in value more than others.

"LEGO Ideas and Seasonal sets yield the highest returns on the secondary market," the researchers wrote. "Sets which follow popular movies are also attractive. The least attractive themes seem to be the ones which stopped being released before 2010. Perhaps, the company stopped producing them because of low popularity on the primary market."


What a Salt Lake at the Bottom of the Sea Tells Us About Life on Mars

Ross Pomeroy - February 12, 2019


More than 11,000 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea exists an environment utterly alien yet eerily familiar to us humans: a lake. But this is unlike any lake that resides above the ocean's surface. Filled with a dark, magnesium chloride-rich brine, it is so salty that it is completely inhospitable to life, and so dense that its surface is clearly distinct from the surrounding saltwater. When disturbed, the brine even produces recognizable waves that wash up on the shoreline. This is Lake Hephaestus.

An international team of researchers originally discovered Lake Hephaestus back in 2013, but they just described it last Friday in a paper published to the journal Scientific Reports. Named for the Greek god of blacksmiths, fire, and volcanoes who was exiled as a child to the deep ocean, Hephaestus lies within a 10-kilometer-long fracture in the ocean floor near Greece. The lake is as deep as 500 feet and long and narrow – roughly 4,000 meters long and 1,000 meters wide at its widest.

Two other briney lakes, called Kryos and Discovery, exist nearby, but Hephaestus is unique for how old it is. Roughly 700 years old, it is surprisingly young, and likely formed when tectonic activity disturbed the seabed, allowing the brine below to seep through vents or cracks in the ocean floor. Hephaestus is the youngest lake of its kind on Earth, the researchers say.

Within Hephaestus' concentrated magnesium chloride brine, no life can survive, but the three-meter-deep interface zone between the brine and the seawater is another story. Though extremely salty and disruptive to hydrogen bonding between water molecules, the zone hosts life. Sampling the region, the scientists found signs of a unique community of microbes distinct from those occupying the uncontaminated saltwater a couple meters above. They believe the microbes are previously uncharacterized "hyperhalophiles," uniquely adapted to dwell in unfathomably salty conditions.

A profile of the interface zone between Lake Hephaestus' brine and the normal seawater of the Mediterranean.

What Scientists Learned From a Trove of Fossilized Archosaur Poop and Vomit

Ross Pomeroy - January 31, 2019


Dinosaur coprolites are rare treats that offer paleontologists prized glimpses into the long-lost lifestyles of "terrible lizards." Coprolites were once feces, which do not fossilize as readily as hard, durable bones. Yet they tell stories that bones do not, like what dinosaurs ate, what their digestive tracts were like, and how big their anuses were (a clue to overall size).

Biologists from Sweden's Uppsala University were lucky enough to uncover a treasure trove of coprolites, and even a few fossilized "regurgitates" (vomit), in a clay pit outside of Lisowice, Poland. They recently published their analysis of the finds in the journal Scientific Reports.


Judging from footprints and bone fossils found nearby, it seems the coprolites belonged to S. wawelski, more commonly known as Smok, meaning "dragon" in Polish. Alive roughly 200 million years ago, Smok was a 16 to 20-foot-long carnivorous archosaur that shared features with both crocodiles and dinosaurs. It may have been one of the earliest forerunners of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex.

Like T. rex, Smok may also have been a bone cruncher, according to the new results. Doctoral student Martin Qvarnström and his colleagues examined the coprolites uncovered at the clay pit with synchrotron microtomography, a form of 3D imaging that utilizes electromagnetic radiation from a particle accelerator. This allowed them to effectively see inside the feces, revealing that they were filled with bone fragments and broken teeth. The fragments were difficult to match to specific prey species, but some likely belonged to an early amphibian and a juvenile dicynodont.

What Causes Earth's Rare and Mysterious Gigantic Jets?

Ross Pomeroy - January 8, 2019


We're all well acquainted with lightning. The bright, brief flashes of electrical energy puncture the general monotony of Earth's sky. Their luminous dance, however, is restricted to within and below the planet's billowing thunderclouds. Often shielded from our view above is a light show of a more magnificent nature. Here can be seen transient bursts of luminous plasma, the most common of which is a sprite, resembling a red mushroom cloud between 50 and 100 kilometers above the surface. Lucky onlookers can also see blue jets, bold, yet wispy blue bolts extending upwards from the tops of clouds to as high as 40 to 50 kilometers.

Rarest of all the "lightning above the clouds" is the gigantic jet, which is like a supersized blue jet that transitions to the color red at the highest altitudes. Scientists at the Arecibo Observatory once observed a blue jet extending from a thundercloud up to 70 kilometers, blazing at speeds of roughly 2,000,000 meters per second, more than forty times faster than ground lightning!

A gigantic jet seen from the Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

What sparks these bright behemoths? This was the topic of a recent study published to Scientific Reports. Researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology and the University of New Hampshire made use of different radar variables, lightning data, and lightning simulations to theorize what exactly goes on within a thundercloud.

The charge structure of thunderclouds is typically similar to an Oreo, with a negatively-charged creme filling sandwiched between two scrumptious cookies representing layers of positive charge. Rarely, a path of negatively-charged ionized air called a leader can escape from the upper positive layer and release streamers than make it all the way to the ionosphere. When this happens, you get a gigantic jet.

Was Low-Dose Radiation From the Atomic Bombs Beneficial?

Ross Pomeroy - December 31, 2018


In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unprecedented explosions and resulting radioactive fallout resulted in the tragic deaths of roughly 200,000 people.

High levels of ionizing radiation spawned by the detonations sentenced individuals who survived the initial blasts to various cancers. Strangely, however, survivors subjected to lower doses of radiation may actually have had elongated lifespans and reduced cancer mortality. Such is the finding of an article recently published to the journal Genes and Environment.

Researcher Shizuyo Sutou of Shujitsu Women's University is the author of the paper. Sutou examined data from the Life Span Study, which has followed 120,000 survivors of the atomic bomb blasts since 1950. His analysis showed that survivors exposed to between 0.005 and 0.5 Grays of radiation (just before where light radiation sickness starts) had lower relative mortality than control subjects not exposed to atomic bomb radiation.

The green line in the chart shows radiation's association to cancer risk according to the hormetic theory.

Sutou's finding is in line with the hormetic theory of radiation (hormesis), which states that very low doses of ionizing radiation might actually be beneficial, producing adaptive responses like stimulating the repair of DNA damage, removing aberrant cells via programmed cell death, and eliminating cancer cells through learned immunity.

What Is the Most Beautiful Primate?

Ross Pomeroy - December 13, 2018


Scientists have conducted a wealth of research on human facial attractiveness. More beautiful faces tend to be symmetrical and "average," with smooth skin texture and no visible deformities. Unsurprisingly, such a bounty of research is nonexistent when it comes to our primate cousins, so researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health in the Czech Republic took it upon themselves to determine what features define a "beautiful" primate, as judged by humans. Their efforts are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Silvie Rádlová, Eva Landová and Daniel Frynta asked 286 Czech respondents (69.6% women, average age 22.7) to rate 117 photos of 107 non-human primate species (one from each known genus) according to their perceived "beauty." The photos displayed primate faces with no emotional expression. Afterwards, the trio analyzed factors affecting the scores, including morphology, colors, and human-likeness.


Prosimians, generally regarded as the least related to humans, were deemed the most attractive. The overall winner of the primate beauty pageant was Madagascar's black-and-white ruffed lemur (pictured left). The red-faced bald uakari, native to Brazil and Peru, rated at the very bottom, along with the prodigiously-nosed proboscis monkey.

Overall, the researchers found that human raters tended to favor primates that were less human-like, which explains why the smaller, more distantly-related prosimians came out on top. Interestingly, however, the attractiveness of Old World monkeys, including gibbons and the Great Apes, was positively affected by human-likeness, as well as many of the same factors humans use to judge facial beauty of other humans, perhaps because these apes are more closely related to us. New World monkeys, including marmosets, squirrel monkeys, and howler monkeys, which share characteristics of both prosimians and Old World monkeys, varied widely in their beauty scores, making it difficult to nail down traits linked to their scores.


The Two Great Killers of 'The Great Dying'

Ross Pomeroy - December 6, 2018


The Siberian Traps in northern Russia are picturesque. The expansive region is graced with serene slopes that jut into striking plateaus. Hiding behind this beauty, however, is a calamitous history, revealed by the basalt rock that underlies the region. Roughly 250 million-years-ago, the Siberian Traps exploded in a series of volcanic eruptions that continued off and on for two million years. When the upheaval finally concluded, 770,000 square miles of magma covered the land and an enormous amount of climate-altering gases had entered the atmosphere. As best scientists can tell, the global changes triggered by these gases resulted in the Permian–Triassic extinction event, "The Great Dying," in which up to 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared. It was the worst mass extinction event in Earth's history.

Now, in a new paper published to the journal Science, scientists from the University of Washington and Stanford University have zeroed in on the two simple changes in the ocean that drove so many species to extinction: less oxygen and more heat. 

Simulating the global warming that occurred (as validated by geochemical data) during the Permian–Triassic extinction within a model of Earth's climate, the researchers found that oxygen available in seawater to marine species would have fallen by 76 percent. That's because hot water can't hold as much dissolved oxygen. At the same time, ocean temperatures skyrocketed, potentially reaching a steamy 104 degrees Fahrenheit in some locations, thus increasing organisms' metabolic demands. As overheated marine life was desperate for more life-giving oxygen, there was less and less for them to breathe. The suffocating strain killed indiscriminately, littering the seafloor with future fossils. Only species already adapted to warmer, tropical waters stood a chance.

Could this calamitous scenario play out again given the current rate of ocean warming? Using publicly available IPCC data, the researchers estimated that by 2300, the oceans could warm to levels roughly ~35 to 50% of those required to account for most of the end-Permian extinctions. We may be on our way to a "Great Dying" sequel.

Huge Impact Crater Found Beneath Greenland's Ice

Ross Pomeroy - November 15, 2018


Greenland is covered in 684,000 cubic miles of ice, 2,000 meters thick, spread over an area of 660,000 square miles. Beneath lies a vast, unexplored, preserved landscape, alien to every human alive on Earth. What could we find down there?

An international team of scientists has already turned up something fascinating. Using radar to penetrate Greenland's frozen shield, they discovered a giant impact crater more than 31 kilometers wide and 320 meters deep from rim to floor. This would make the crater one of the 25 largest on the planet.

The researchers detailed their discovery in a paper published in yesterday's issue of the journal Science Advances.

Close-up of the northwestern ice-sheet margin in Inglefield Land. The Hiawatha impact crater was discovered beneath the semi-circular ice margin.

The crater lies beneath the Hiawatha Glacier in the northwest corner of Greenland. This fortuitous placement right at the edge of the ice sheet allowed the scientists to probe glacial meltwater for sediments bearing signs of an explosive impact. They discovered grains of quartz apparently deformed by a powerful shock. Moreover, the meltwater itself contained elevated concentrations of nickel, cobalt, chromium and gold, evincing contamination by a rare iron meteorite.

Llamas Could Lead Us to a Universal Flu "Vaccine"

Ross Pomeroy - November 1, 2018


Scientists have been on the hunt for a universal influenza vaccine for decades, but thus far, none has yet materialized for human use. That's unfortunate, because one is desperately needed. Between 12,000 and 56,000 Americans die from the flu and associated complications each year, and in the most recent season, the death toll skyrocketed to 80,000. Yearly vaccination prevents an average of 4.3 million flu illnesses each year, but that number could be much higher.

The difficulty in battling seasonal flu owes to the disease's diversity. There are numerous strains and types of influenza virus and their prevalence differs each year, forcing health officials to predict what strains to vaccinate against. When their predictions are correct, the flu vaccine is more efficacious. When they're wrong, it is less effective.

A universal flu vaccine could finally end this inefficient guessing game. According to the National Institutes of Health, such a vaccine should be 75% effective, protect against group I and group II influenza A viruses (the most common to infect humans), last for at least one year, and be suitable for all age groups.

In 2013, then U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Chief Scientist Jesse Goodman predicted that that the earliest we'd see such a vaccine was in five to ten years.

Scientists Attempt to Clone Mice From Poop

Ross Pomeroy - October 11, 2018


In a new study published in Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of Yamanashi in Japan decribed their attempts to clone mice from feces. As you can imagine, the process was a little messy.

Lead author Satoshi Kamimura and his colleagues aimed to use nuclear transfer to accomplish the feat. This is the same strategy previously utilized to clone Dolly the Sheep in 1996, as well as two monkeys earlier this year.

Collection of cell-like bodies from mouse feces. (A) Method of a collection of cell-like bodies. (B) Fecal suspension derived from 129-GFP mouse (a) and its extended image (b). Many cell-like bodies (CLBs) existed in fecal suspension.

The researchers first attempted to collect cells from the surface of mice droppings. A process of harvesting, centrifuging, mixing in solution, and centrifuging again yielded what the authors termed "cell-like bodies." Kamimura and his team hoped that most of these were epidermal cells from the mice intestines, but because many of the harvested cells were damaged, they couldn't be sure. Inserting the cells' nuclei into mouse egg cells stripped of their nuclei led to the formation of a basic pronucleus in up to a quarter of cases. Development didn't go much farther, however.

"The reconstructed... embryos showed several abnormalities, such as shrunken nuclear membranes and abnormal distribution of tubulin, and none of them developed beyond one-cell stage embryos," the authors described.

Could Microgravity One Day Help Treat Cancer?

Ross Pomeroy - October 4, 2018


In anticipation of humans one day traversing and colonizing outer space for extended periods of time, scientists have exposed all sorts of living creatures – from bacteria and bullfrogs to mice and monkeys – to microgravity environments. We know now to expect a variety of biological effects from long-term weightlessness: reduction in bone density, loss of muscle mass, diminished cardiac function, distorted balance, impaired vision – the list goes on.

But the news isn't all bad. A recent paper published to Scientific Reports hints that microgravity may have an anticancer effect.

Researchers from Seoul National University College of Medicine in Korea exposed human Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer cells to a simulated microgravity environment within a clinostat, a spinning lab device commonly used for such a purpose. After two days in simulated microgravity, the cancer cells were compared to control cells allowed to grow at normal gravity.

The scientists found that the cancer cells exposed to microgravity had dysfunctional mitochondria compared to control cells, leading to reduced levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Mitochondria are essentially cellular power plants and ATP is the major source of energy that they produce. Starved of energy, the cancer cells exposed to microgravity started to "eat" themselves in a process called autophagy. Autophagy is an orderly breakdown of cellular parts.

A Drug Intoxication Mimics Brain Death

Ross Pomeroy - September 27, 2018


In a new case report, Turkish doctors from Dokuz Eylul University present a curious case of drug intoxication mimicking brain death. Their account is published in Acta Neurologica Belgica.

At an unstated date, a 15-year-old female was discovered unresponsive surrounded by various empty bottles of pharmaceuticals, including aspirin, acetominaphen, and the migraine drug diclofenac sodium. Upon arrival at the emergency room, she was apparently in a deep coma, scoring a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, the lowest possible score. It describes a patient who does not open their eyes, makes no sound, and is incapable of motor response. She was intubated and given activated charcoal to hopefully prevent further absorption of the drugs she had consumed. Doctors tried additional measures to revive the girl and prevent bodily damage, but she was apparently brain dead.

Hoping they were wrong, caergivers transferred the girl to the pediatric intensive care unit, where an electroencephalogram (EEG) brought some hope, revealing "cerebral bioelectric activity and ground amplitudes significantly lower than normal but unlike brain death," the doctors wrote.

On her second day in intensive care, the girl dramatically regained consciousness and could follow commands. So rapid was her recovery that she was discharged in "perfect neurological condition" the following day.

Homeopathy Ineffective Against Children's Cold and Flu

Ross Pomeroy - September 20, 2018


Acute respiratory tract infections (ARTIs), including the common cold, influenza, and pneumonia, are quite common in children. On average, kids experience between three and six of these infections every year. Most cases resolve without any serious harm, but tens of millions of these infections require hospitalization each year across the globe. In fact, ARTIs account for a quarter of deaths in children under age five, with pneumonia by far inflicting the most casualties.

So, while ARTIs are common, they shouldn't be trifled with. And one thing you probably shouldn't do with such an infection is try to treat it with homeopathy. A recent systematic review of randomized controlled trials examining treatment of child ARTIs with homeopathic remedies found no evidence that they are effective in any way. The review was published to the prestigious Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine in which substances are heavily diluted in water, sometimes by factors of trillions or more. At each dilution, the solutions are vigorously shaken in a process called "succussion," which supposedly releases the healing energy of the substances into the water molecules. Though the resulting "remedies" are essentially just water, because they have been diluted so heavily, homeopaths claim that they can treat all sorts of maladies. Strangely, they also claim that a more heavily diluted remedy is more potent, which defies established laws of medicine and physics. U.S. sales of homeopathic and herbal remedies totaled $6.4 billion in 2012.

Homeopathic remedies used for the common cold include arsenicum album (arsenic trioxide), euphrasia (eyebright plant), and natrum muriaticum (sodium chloride, aka table salt). There's also a flu remedy called oscillococcinum, derived from duck liver and heart.

Surgeons Find Water Balloon Blocking Teen's Small Intestine

Ross Pomeroy - September 13, 2018


In the latest edition of "How Did That Get in Your Small Intestine?" Australian surgeons Zheng Andrew Zhang, David Lan Cheong Wah, and Thair M Abbas Al-Dujaili present the tale of an "Unusual cause for small bowel obstruction" in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

At an unspecified time, an 18-year-old male visited a regional hospital near Melbourne, Australia complaining of nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and – most concerningly – total constipation over the previous five days. His physician ordered a CT scan to determine the cause of the blockage. Initial scans revealed that a blockage was indeed present, but evaluators could not make out any clear foreign objects.

Intraoperative photo showing small bowel dilatation (green arrow) and soft fluctuant mass in the terminal ileum (red arrow).

An emergency exploratory laparotomy did. Upon removing the small intestine, surgeons noticed a strange mass lodged in the pink, winding organ (see figure above). Cutting open the intestine itself, they found a bright red water balloon with a string attached. They removed the balloon and stitched the patient back up good as new.

Afterwards, physicians repeatedly asked the 18-year-old if he knew anything about the water balloon. The teen insisted he had no idea how it got into his bowels. Perhaps he was embarrassed and lied? Or maybe he was the victim of some prank? Regardless of the balloon's origin story, the teen swiftly returned to good health and was discharged with an appointment for a psychiatric review.

12.5 Million-Year-Old Ape Is Earliest Hominid With a Cavity

Ross Pomeroy - September 4, 2018


Austria of 12.5 million years ago seems to have been a very hospitable home for Dryopithecus carinthiacus. The forested landscape treated the now extinct ape, which measured roughly four feet in length and resembled a mix between a monkey and a chimpanzee, to a veritable feast of fruits. For nine to ten months out of the year, Dryopithecus could gorge on early forms of plums, cherries, grapes, mulberries, strawberries, and various citrus fruits. But eating all of those sugar-rich fruits may have come with a downside of which modern humans are quite aware: tooth decay.

Dryopithecus fontani, from Late Miocene of Eurasia.

In new study published in PLoS ONE, German researchers Jochen Fuss, Gregor Uhlig, and Madelaine Böhme revealed the earliest known cavity in hominids, a group which includes modern humans, human ancestors, and many apes. A 12.5 million-year-old Dryopithecus dubbed LMK-Pal 5508 found near St. Stefan, Austria had deep lesions in its left molars that likely required several years to form (see picture at top). Moreover, signs of wear observed on the right tooth row indicated that the individual likely experienced a painful toothache, the researchers speculated.

While cavities are well known to modern humans, they are quite rare in our ape relatives. Cavities occur in just 1.38% of the permanent teeth of wild chimpanzees, the researchers reported. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 92% of American adults aged 20-64 have had a cavity.

The reason for the disparity should be quite obvious: sugar. Bacteria in your mouth convert sugars into organic acids which demineralize and dissolve the enamel and dentine that makes up your teeth. The more sugar you eat, the more acidic your mouth becomes, the more your teeth decay.

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