How to be an Amateur Naturalist

Cathy Taylor conducts her “Amateur Naturalist” program at Paris Mountain State Park in Greenville, S. C.

With Cathy, a half mile hike can take two hours and feel like five minutes. On a hike down the Turtle Trail, she shared the tools of her trade: magnifying lenses, binoculars and bug jars. Back at the park’s classroom is a collection of field guide books, a microscope, nets and buckets. Various animal skulls, a collection of scat replicas, birds’ nests, shed snake skins and an aquarium stocked with tadpoles and minnows from the park’s lakes provide specimens for study.

Keeping a Nature Log

Cathy also keeps a nature log, recording sightings, observations and their dates. The most important tool, she emphasizes, is a healthy dose of curiosity.

How do you identify an unknown specimen? Cathy points to a small, frilly, white flower as an example. First she observes it closely perhaps with a magnifying lens. How many petals does it have? How are they arranged? How are the leaves arranged? Do the leaves have any unusual characteristics, such as hairy or shiny surfaces? How tall is the plant? Where is it growing? What grows next to it?

Identifying the Starry Campion

Although she admits she’s not an artist, Cathy draws a picture of the specimen in her nature log. Drawing can be a better memory aid than a photograph for the simple reason that it forces the mind to notice and record all these details. Once she returns to her library, she consults her field guides. To be certain of the identification, she then searches the internet for photos and information, entering specific characteristics of the plant in the search engine. The small, frilly, white flower now has a name: Starry Campion.

Identifying Birds and Other Specimens

Crossing a small creek, one of her students spots a frog several yards away and half submerged. Cathy lends her binoculars for a close-up view. Unfortunately, sometimes even binoculars cannot help identify an animal. It may be partly hidden or it may move too quickly. In that instance, a naturalist may have to depend on other identifying characteristics. For example, while observing a bird, note its size relative to common birds such as crows, robins or sparrows. What shape is its silhouette? Does it have any distinctive field marks? What is its flight pattern? And what is its habitat? Some birds prefer feeding on the branches of a tree, while others prefer the tip top or the trunk; still others hunt on the ground.

The Swallowtail Likes Dog Fennel

Later, Cathy illustrates the importance of observing the specimen’s surroundings to learn more about its ecological niche. Once, on a nature hike, she was pointing out a dog fennel plant when a butterfly landed on it. One of the students asked, “Why did it land there?” Turns out it was a Black Swallowtail Butterfly, a species fond of dog fennel.

Cathy recommends taking advantage of state and national park learning programs to build skills and knowledge. They can be found on state park websites such as the South Carolina State Parks website, Southcarolinaparks.com . To search for programs at national parks, go to National Parks Service website, NPS.Gov.

Cathy has kept a nature log for a number of years. Nature logs record the date, place and details of a sighting. They are useful for consultation in the following years to predict the appearance of a species. They can be very scientific, recording time of day, temperature, weather etc. Or they can become a creative project. Some naturalists sketch, paint, and write poetry to embellish their logs.

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What are Platelets? The Smallest of the Three Blood Cell Types Plays a Role in Clotting

Platelets are fragments of larger cells found in the bone marrow. While they don’t possess a nucleus and their lives are short, these “cells” serve a vital role.

The primary function of a platelet is in hemostasis, the cessation of bleeding from an injured vessel.

Platelets are cell fragments that break off from larger cells, called megakaryocytes, that reside within the bone marrow. Megakaryocytes synthesize platelets in response to a protein (thrombopoietin) made by the liver when the number of circulating platelets falls.

Once in the circulation, platelets survive for eight to ten days before they are filtered out by the spleen and liver, whereupon they are replaced by new platelets arising from the bone marrow.

A normal platelet count ranges from 140,000 to 440,000 per microliter. Pregnancy, inflammation, or menstrual phase can influence this number to a certain extent.

Platelets contain storage granules that hold clotting factors and other proteins, calcium, serotonin, ADP or ATP, and growth mediators. When activated, platelets release the contents of these granules in order to initiate clotting and, eventually, healing.

Platelet Activation and Clotting

  • In the normal state, blood vessels are lined by endothelial cells which produce nitrous oxide, prostacyclins, and mediating enzymes that prevent platelets from sticking together, or aggregating.
  • When a blood vessel is injured, endothelial cells stop producing mediators, so platelets immediately become more “sticky.”
  • Injury to a vessel wall exposes collagen and von Willebrand’s factor (VWF), both of which stimulate platelets to change shape, adhere to the vessel wall, and begin releasing the contents of their granules.
  • Release of granular contents initiates a series of reactions that attracts and activates other platelets and triggers the plasma-based coagulation cascade.
  • Activated platelets assemble receptors on their surfaces that attract fibrinogen, which is then converted by a plasma protein called thrombin to fibrin.
  • Fibrin strands form a meshwork which traps still more platelets and generates a plug, or clot.

Disorders of Platelets

  1. Decreased numbers of platelets (thrombocytopenia)
  • Loss of megakaryocytes in bone marrow: leukemia; aplastic anemia; myelosuppressive drugs (e.g., chemotherapy)
  • Diminished platelet production: HIV; alcohol-induced bone marrow damage; megaloblastic anemias; myelodysplasia
  • Platelet sequestration: cirrhosis with splenomegaly (or other causes of enlarged spleen); Gaucher’s disease
  • Increased or accelerated platelet consumption or destruction: HIV; HELLP syndrome; transfusion; drug-induced (quinine, sulfa, sulfonylureas, gold salts, etc.); autoimmune conditions; idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura; lymphomas; acute respiratory distress syndrome; disseminated intravascular coagulation (e.g., sepsis, massive burns); hemolytic-uremic syndrome
  1. Increased numbers of platelets (thrombocytosis)
  • Overproduction of platelets: essential thrombocythemia (abnormal proliferation of platelets arising from a blood-producing stem cell); chronic inflammatory diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.); acute infection; tumors; polycythemia vera; certain leukemias; iron deficiency; abnormal proliferation of bone marrow (myeloproliferative syndromes)
  • Decreased removal of platelets: splenectomy
  1. Abnormal platelet function
  • Decreased function: drug induced (aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories); kidney failure; multiple myeloma; cirrhosis; lupus; hereditary (von Willebrand disease; defects in storage granule release, Glanzmann’s disease, Bernard-Soulier syndrome, etc.)

Platelets are integral to the coagulation and healing processes. Abnormalities in platelet count or platelet function can be secondary to a variety of disorders or drugs.

Probiotics and Young Children: Research Proves Reduced Upper Respiratory Symptoms

Do not think that all bacteria are disease-producing. Friendly bacteria live in the digestive tract and help our bodies run smoothly by enhancing the immune system, fighting off bad bacteria, and promoting good digestion. Probiotics are products that contain live, friendly bacteria, similar to natural bacteria found in our bodies. Probiotics are most popular in supplements and food – with an explosion of new items on the market.

The two most common probiotic groups (genera) are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each group has many species, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, and there are numerous strains. Probiotics are safe for adults and children, as they already naturally reside in our bodies.

Probiotics Reduces Kids’ Cold Symptoms

Published in the online journal Pediatrics, a study found that cold and flu symptoms decreased in young children, ages three to five, who took either a single probiotic or a combination of probiotics. Furthermore, the single or multiple probiotic use reduced the amount of time on antibiotics (compared to a placebo group) by 68 percent and 84 percent respectively, and missed daycare days declined. The study involved 326 healthy kids, dosed twice a day for six months.

Relative to the placebo, the single probiotic, Lactobacillus acidophilus (strain NCFM), compared to the multiple probiotic, L. acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium animalis (subspecies lactis Bi-07), resulted in the latter twosome combination producing more dramatic results.

  • Fevers diminished by 53 percent compared to 73 percent.
  • Coughing lessened 41 percent versus 62 percent.
  • Rhinorrhea (excessive mucous) decreased 28 percent compared to 59 percent.

Upper Respiratory Infection Risk Decreased

Reported in the e-publication of Clinical Nutrition, a study found that Lactobacillus GG produced remarkable results in reducing upper respiratory infections in daycare center children. Viruses cause upper respiratory infections, and include such symptoms as sore throat, cough, runny nose and headache.

For three months, 281 kids (in a placebo or testing group) drank either regular milk or milk containing the probiotic Lactobacillus GG. Those in the testing group showed a significantly reduced risk of upper respiratory infection and for infection lasting longer than three days.

A Flood of Probiotic Products for Young Children

It is important to read probiotic labels and determine just what gains the brands claim, such as diarrhea relief, less respiratory problems, general immune support or tame tummies. Here is a sampling of products:

  • Nature’s Way’s seven-strain powder – Primadophilus for Children (ages 0-5)
  • Sedona Labs’ six-strain powder – iFlora Probiotic for Kids
  • Amerifit Brands’ Lactobacillus GG packets– Culturelle for Kids
  • Stonyfield Farm’s six-strain organic yogurt – YoBaby and YoKids

Probiotics are Healthy and Safe for Kids

Probiotics are relatively new products marketed as supplements or added to food that hold promise for kids’ – and adults’ – healthy wellbeing. Many people know from experience that probiotics promote healthy living. Scientific research is ongoing and will confirm or deny the assertions of gastrointestinal, immune and respiratory support.

This is an educational article only. Consult your health care professional for medical advice.

What are Traditional and Alternative Medicine Fibroid Treatments?

Do you have pain, irregular and unusually heavy menstrual periods? Talk to your doctor about fibroids. Here’s information on the various fibroid treatments.

Fibrin is a protein that the body creates in response to inflammation or bleeding. Fibroids or fibromuscular tumors occur when excessive amounts of fibrin build up. Hormonal imbalance is a reason this occurs. Specifically, fibroids can be inside the uterus muscle wall, under the uterus lining, on the outside part of the uterus, on long stalks outside the uterus, or on long stalks inside the uterus. Fibroids are typically benign; however they’re very painful and they cause blood clots, urinary urgency, pain during sex, anemia, low back pain, constipation, pelvic pressure, bleeding in between periods, heavier menstrual periods, scarring, infertility, or problems if they occur during pregnancy. In terms of age of occurrence, fibroids typically occur in women anytime from their early 20s to late 40s although occasionally fibroids occur in post-menopausal women or teenagers. There are various treatments for fibroids.

Traditional Treatment and Diet

Treatment options for fibroids are varied. For example, doctors sometimes prescribe birth control pills at low dosage to treat fibroids. Sometimes they may prescribe high dosage ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling. Or, they prescribe iron supplements to combat the anemia that occurs as a function of heavier menstrual periods.

Other treatments include surgery. For instance, physicians may choose to do uterine artery embolization which stops blood supply to the fibroid. Or, they may do hysteroscopic resectioning or may do a myomectomy to remove the fibroids. Granted, surgery also has risks such as potential regrowth of the fibroids, post-operative infections, or infertility. If the previously mentioned surgeries do not work, then hysterectomy is sometimes an extreme measure that it taken because it removes the uterus as well as removing the fibroids.

Physicians sometimes prescribe hormone therapy for persons with fibroids. Granted, hormone therapy has potential side effects that could include mood swings, depression, excessively heavy menstrual periods, or even ovarian cancer. There are other treatments for fibroids that are reportedly not as harsh on the body. For instance, doctors often prescribe stress reduction, exercise, and a high fiber low fat diet for people who have fibroids. Avoiding foods laden with sugar, flour, or yeast has also been suggested.

Avoiding phytoestrogen foods and avoiding soy has been suggested because some women have reported that consuming soy made their tumors worse. Also, apparently being given soy formula as a baby is a risk factor because a study found that women given soy formula when they were babies were in fact 25% more likely to eventually have uterine fibroids as compared to women who were fed cow’s milk or breastfed. It has also been recommended that some cereals should be avoided due to the presence of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. Also, it has been suggested that processed foods, pasta, overly acidic foods or carbonated drinks should not be consumed. Additionally, it has been stated that drinking sufficient amounts of water such as eight cups of water each day is very important in the healing effort.

Alternative Medicine Treatments for Fibroids

There are also alternative medicine treatments. Examples of alternative medicine treatments include Cayce castor oil packs, chiropractic spinal adjustments, an insert into the heel of one shoe in cases where there is discrepancy in leg lengths, and colonics. Treatments for leaky gut syndrome are sometimes suggested in cases where the leaky gut syndrome is contributing to the fibroids. Acupuncture is another alternative medicine treatment that is sometimes done for persons with fibroids.

Herbals are another alternative medicine fibroid treatment. One example of an herbal used for fibroids includes the supplement fibrovan. There are anecdotal reports that fibrovan reportedly helps dissolve fibrin deposits and clots. Fibrovan contains ingredients such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which is an antioxidant typically found in green tea leaves, lycopene which is an antioxidant that is found inside of tomatoes, nattokinase which is an enzyme extract that is found in soy beans, and bacillus natto which is a beneficial bacteria to the human body.

What Is the Pupil and How Does It Change Size? How Your Eyes and Brain Control Light Intensity on Your Retina

Nerve responses and specialized structures control the aperture that regulates the amount of light that enters the eye and falls on the photoreceptors.

The eye is the brain’s window on the world, the first portal to the processes associated with vision. And similar to cameras and taking pictures, either too much or too little light can lead to images that lack for detail, display distorted coloration, and generate lower resolution images than desired. The eye has a specialized structure at its anterior (front) end, the pupil, which plays a critical role in maximizing visual inputs.

The Eye and Refraction of Light

The front part of the eye is most involved in the process of refraction of light. That is, the structures of the anterior segment of the eye are most involved in the process of bending (refracting) light so that the images will focus on the retina, the light-sensitive and sensing structure in the posterior (rear) of the eye. The front part of the eyeball, or globe, contains the cornea, the anterior and posterior chambers, the iris (the visibly colored circle in the front of the eye), the ciliary bodies, the lens, and the pupil.

What Is the Pupil?

Most simply, the pupil is an aperture, an opening. In this case, it is the opening through the iris that lets light pass to and through the ocular lens and onward towards the retina. The pupil is the dark spot in the center of the iris. It appears dark because light that enters the eye is absorbed by the internal structures of the eye and doesn’t reflect back through the pupil.

What Controls the Pupil?

The size of the opening through the iris, known as the pupil, is controlled in response to contraction and relaxation of the different muscles that are part of the iris. The dilation (widening) or constriction (narrowing) depends on numerous signals in a circuit that involves the pupillary muscles, the retinal ganglion cells, the optic nerve (the second cranial nerve, CN II), regions of the brain and brainstem and the oculomotor nerve (the third cranial nerve, CN III).

How Does Pupil Size Change?

When light shines into the eye, the signals from the retina travel to the higher centers of the brain for the processing of visual input. But when it comes to constricting the pupil, neural signals exit the retina and then pass through a different circuit that goes to deeper, older structures of the brain and a signal goes back out through a different nerve back to specific muscles of the iris, the sphincter pupillae, causing them to constrict, narrowing the pupil. This is known as the pupillary reflex. It can not be consciously controlled and serves as a useful indicator of neural function through specific parts of the brainstem. More importantly, this reflex is “consensual”; that is if light is shone specifically into one eye, the pupil of the other eye will constrict right along with the pupil that is being illuminated.

There are another set of muscles in the iris that are known as the dilator pupillae. When these muscles are activated, via a different neural pathway than the sphincter pupillae muscles, the pupil will dilate. Both the constricting and dilating pathways are themselves countered by other neural signals that can inhibit their action. Ultimately, the size of the pupil is determined by the intensity of contraction of the different muscles, regulated by both their positive and negative signals.

Drugs That Change Pupil Size

When someone has a dilated exam at the eye doctor, specific drugs are used that block the action of the muscles controlling pupillary constriction. This aids in the examination of the eye and its internal structures. So drugs like tropicamide, phenylephrine and atropine can cause dilation of the pupil, but so can cocaine, amphetamines and other illicit drugs. Constriction of the pupil can be caused by drugs such as pilocarpine or neostigmine, but can also be caused by drugs of abuse such as heroin or morphine.

In everyday use, the pupil changes size in response to ambient illumination. A lot of light and the pupil constricts to help with visual acuity and keep the light sensing cells of the retina from getting “overexposed”. When it is dark out or a person is in a dimly lit room, the pupil dilates to allow as much light as possible to enter the eye. A remarkably involved system for something that seems so simple.

To learn more about the eye, visit the interactive eye diagram at the US National Eye Institute

G Protein Coupled Receptors: The Most Frequent Target of Pharmaceutical Agents

The G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR), or 7-transmembrane (7-TM) receptor, superfamily is one of the largest groups of related genes in the entire genome with more than 300 members. Owing to the large number of physiological processes controlled by signaling through these receptors, the superfamily members make up the largest group of “druggable” targets in the body.

GPCR Family Groups

Sequence analysis of the genes contained within the human genome has identified large numbers of GPCR genes (>300) and remarkably enough the function of a sizable portion remain unknown. But based on sequence similarities, the GPCRs have been divided into 6 different classes. All of the members of this group of proteins have seven transmembrane spanning segments. The biochemical and pharmacologic characterization of the original members of the superfamily identified them as utilizing small GTP binding proteins to transduce their intracellular signal once activated.

Examples of GPCR Proteins and Their Functions

GPCRs are involved in many different cellular processes. One of the best characterized members is the light-transducing protein known as rhodopsin. This protein and several close relatives are responsible for the specialized pigment present in the rods and cones of the retina that allow for sensing of light, and the sense of vision. The receptors in cells that respond to the hormone adrenaline, the adrenoreceptors, are GPCRs. Many important neurotransmitter receptors are members of the GPCR superfamily including receptors for serotonin and for glutamate. One of the most widely known by the public at large, and seasonally appreciated members of the GPCR superfamily are the histamine receptors. The sense of smell is possible because of GPCRs that detect odor molecules.

Common Drugs That Target GPCRs

Because of the widespread distribution of GPCRs throughout the body, their presence on the surface of cells and the vast array of cellular processes that they can modulate, GPCRs are the target of more drugs than any other targeted protein in the body. Name a body response and a need to control it and there is likely a GPCR involved and a drug available to modulate it.

  • Stomach Acid Relief: Histamine H2 Receptor blockers like Zantac and Tagamet
  • Allergy or Hayfever Relief: Histamine H1 Receptor blockers like Benadryl and Claritin
  • Blood Pressure or Heart Rate Control: beta-Adrenoceptor blockers like sotalol, timolol, atenolol, propranolol, and many, many others
  • Motion Sickness: Muscarinic Acetylcholine Receptor blocker scopolamine
  • Dilated Eye Examination: Muscarinic Acetylcholine Receptor blocker tropicamide
  • Severe Psychiatric Disorder: Dopamine Receptor blocker haloperidol

The list of potential GPCR targets and the drugs that have been developed to affect their function is extremely long. And as the functions of the 100 or so other GPCRs with as yet unknown physiological effects are identified, the list of drugs that target GPCRs will grow ever longer.

Wild Atlantic Salmon Stocks Declining: Fish Farms are Causing Depletion of Wild Fish Stocks

Crowded condition of farmed fish encourages parasitic sea lice.

Parasites attack young wild salmon as they return to the sea and are threatening the sustainability of wild stocks.

Wild Atlantic Salmon Stocks

Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) come into fresh water to spawn. The young travel down to the sea, and then spend a couple of years feeding in the ocean. The adult fish are genetically programmed to return to the river system of their birth, and the cycle continues. Since the 1970’s the number of adults returning to spawn has reduced by over 50%, and there are now thought to be less that four million wild salmon in the ocean.

Fish Farming Atlantic Salmon

The farming of Atlantic Salmon began in the 1970’s, initially in Norway and Scotland. Eggs are ‘stripped’ from adult salmon, hatched and raised in fresh water. When they are big enough they are put in cages, usually in estuaries, where they are fattened up for market. It is estimated that there are currently around 270 million farmed salmon (compared to 4 million wild!).

Effects of Fish Farming on Atlantic Salmon Stocks

  • The crowded conditions of the farmed salmon in their cages are ideal for encouraging parasites (see ‘Sea Lice Affect Wild Salmon’ and ‘Sea Lice and Salmon’). Unfortunately wild salmon often need to swim past these fish farms to get to the open sea, and in doing so they can pick up heavy infestations of these parasites – enough to threaten their survival.
  • Sometimes cages get damaged allowing farmed salmon to escape into the wild, and although this might initially appear to be a ‘good thing’, these escapees are genetically different from the truly wild fish, and their effect on the wild stock is detrimental.

(Watch the very impressive ‘National Geographic Multimedia Presentation’).

History of Salmon as Food

  • As far back as 20,000 BC salmon were an important food. (A carving of a salmon has been found in a cave in the Vezere region of the Dordogne – France – of this date.) There is also evidence of salmon traps in the same river system dating to around 10,000 BC.
  • More recently the site of Westminster Abbey in London is said to have been determined by the presence of salmon fishermen over a thousand years ago. (The fishermen believed they had ferried St.Peter across the Thames, and this superstition led to the building of first a chapel, and later an Abbey, where he was supposed to have been landed.)
  • Even more recently salmon was so cheap and plentiful in London that mediaeval apprentices had it written into their agreements that they would not be fed salmon more than once a week.

Like oysters, salmon were once thought of as ‘food for the poor’, but have now become a luxury food.