April 01, 2005

Quick Takes

Understanding mental illness

50 Signs of Mental Illness, by Dr. James Whitney Hicks (Yale University Press, $27.50).

Nearly one in three Americans every year suffers from some psychiatric symptom, ranging from alcohol cravings to panic attacks to debilitating psychosis.

In an authoritative, 375-page compendium, Dr. James Whitney Hicks outlines the signs and symptoms of major mental illness. The book, organized alphabetically, gives concise information on coping with issues from anxiety to eating disorders.

Hicks, director of clinical services at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center in New York City, has a warm, gentle voice. He reminds us that everyone gets nervous, shy, impulsive or stressed out.

Some behaviors, however, cross the line and need medical attention. One example: Many people consider themselves germ-phobic. But if you develop elaborate rituals for flushing toilets, washing hands or using public bathrooms, you may be suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, one of the most common illnesses behind depression.

Bottom line: This is an excellent starting point for understanding mental health. - Mary Beth Regan


ROCKY RIDGE - Some 200 million years ago, what are thought to be squirrel-size lizards skittering across the soft mud of a desert oasis left their delicate footprints in the muck.

After eons buried in the Earth, those tiny prints are emerging again - etched into an outcrop of brick-red Triassic shale eroding in a horse pasture near Emmitsburg.

That's where Richard D.L. Fulton and Cathe Curtis have found more than 30 reptile tracks in recent weeks. The amateur paleontologists say they have also found evidence of horsetail ferns and the roots of other ancient plants.

Fulton, 56, is the managing editor of The Emmitsburg Dispatch when he's not searching for traces of ancient life. He's hoping for bigger prey and a bigger story as he and Curtis, 61, prepare to split open more of the tilted layer cake of rock. After all, these lizards were probably snack food for dinosaurs.

"This formation, the Gettysburg formation, has been known to have a ... variety of prehistoric animals, from dinosaurs to a number of lizards," he said. "If I hit dinosaurs, I'm going to be the first one to scream for help."

He hopes eventually to partner with a professional paleontologist and produce a scientific paper describing the find.

Columbia University paleontologist Paul Olsen has identified the Rocky Ridge lizard tracks from photos as those of Rhynchosauroides (RINK-o-suh-ROY-deez), common to Triassic rocks in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and northern Europe, which abutted North America in that era.

Scientists aren't certain what animals made such tracks. But the candidates are all slender, gecko-like reptiles, up to 18 inches long, with long legs, necks and tails, and five toes. "It would most certainly look like a lizard. I think this may be their first discovery in Maryland," Olsen said in an e-mail to Fulton. "Nice find!"

The Rocky Ridge prints were first discovered a decade ago by a scientist from the Maryland Geological Survey who apparently died without officially reporting them, according to MGS officials.

But he did tell John and Linda Ballenger, the farm's owners, who chiseled a few from the outcrop and have displayed them in their living room ever since. Her son used to show them off at his preschool. "I guess I didn't really believe they were real," she said.

At a friend's urging last month, she e-mailed Fulton at the Dispatch, and the rest is paleo-history.

Maryland's first dinosaur prints were discovered in Emmitsburg and reported in 1895 by James A. Mitchell, a science teacher at Mount St. Mary's College. He found them in two slabs of locally quarried Triassic slate that were being used as paving stones. They were later lost.

Another rock slab bearing more than two dozen dinosaur footprints turned up in 1998, in an Emmitsburg barn owned by the Sisters of Charity, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. Tracked down by Washington geologist and educator Peter Kranz, it is now on display at the Maryland Science Center.

Hundreds more footprints from the Cretaceous period - more than 100 million years later than the Triassic and nearer the end of the dinosaurs' reign - have been found in the Baltimore-Washington corridor by amateur paleontologist Ray Stanford and others.

- Frank D. Roylance

Did you know ...

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. - National Eye Institute

In Brief

Elevated intelligence

People with high cholesterol may have one thing going for them: basic smarts. A long-term, Boston University study of almost 1,900 men and women showed that those with elevated cholesterol levels also had elevated scores on a variety of tests measuring mental ability.

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