Over a dozen dolphins, stranded on the beaches of Florida and Massachusetts, have been found with brains full of amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease.
The scientists who made the discovery think it may be a warning to us all: alongside the Alzheimer's-like plaques, the team also found the environmental toxin BMAA.
Produced by blue-green algae blooms, this neurotoxin is easily caught up in the ocean food web, and chronic dietary exposure has long been suspected to be a cause of neurological disease, including Alzheimers, Parkinson's and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
The presence of both BMAA and amyloid plaques in 13 stranded dolphins now adds even more weight to this hypothesis.
"Dolphins are an excellent sentinel species for toxic exposures in the marine environment," says neurologist Deborah Mash from the University of Miami.
"With increasing frequency and duration of cyanobacterial blooms in coastal waters, dolphins might provide early warning of toxic exposures that could impact human health."
They might also be a good animal model for how BMAA could trigger Alzheimer's disease. In 2017, it was discovered that dolphins are the only known wild animal to show signs of this common human disease.
Meanwhile, dolphins that inhabit Florida coastal waters are also commonly exposed to recurring harmful algae blooms (HABs). This might just be a coincidence, but experiments have shown that chronic BMAA dietary exposure can trigger neurodegenerative changes in both humans and non-human primates.
"Acute and chronic exposures to such toxins can be harmful to both humans and animals resulting in respiratory illnesses, severe dermatitis, mucosal damage, cancer, organ failure and death," the authors write.
As the world warms at a rapid rate, these HABs are only becoming more frequent, and the authors worry that dolphins will accumulate even more BMAA as a result, "both by exposure to HABs and by the ingestion of prey previously exposed to the cyanotoxin".
As such, these creatures may very well be our first indication of poor environmental conditions, and while it's still not clear if these blooms directly lead to Alzheimer's in dolphins or in humans, the researchers say it's a risk we shouldn't be willing to take.
"The $64,000 question is whether these marine mammals experienced cognitive deficits and disorientation that led to their beaching," says co-author Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist at the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole.
"Until further research clarifies this question, people should take simple steps to avoid cyanobacterial exposure."
This study has been published in PLOS ONE.