An American Lobster in Stockholm

An American Lobster in Stockholm

In 2010 a researcher found a clutch of hybrid American-European lobster eggs in a Norwegian fjord. This kicked off a decade of research in attempt to determine if Scandinavia was in the midst of a foreign lobster invasion. This question is hard to answer, especially when the fate of a business worth $150 million dollars a year hangs in the balance.

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Ask Sam: Caterpillar Legs, Living Fossils, & Sam Ruins Hybrid Cars

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It's that time of year again! Actually, this time of year comes more often than other times of year tend to. In so far as we do it whenever that 'ol Ask Sam inbox starts piling up with questions from you, dear listeners! In this one, Sam and a couple of the Outside/In producers are tackling your questions about disappearing caterpillar legs, animal sexuality, living fossils, elevator efficiency and craaaaazy biking habits. Whew! Let's hit it.

 

 


Question 1: Aaron from Sandiego, CA asks:

“When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly… caterpillars have a bunch of little legs but butterflies only have six legs. I’m like, where do all the legs go?”

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What a perfectly wonderful way of asking this question! Really we’re talking about metamorphosis, here, and how the heck does it work? Perhaps you’ve heard Radiolab’s meditation on this question, and if you have you’ve likely come away with the impression that caterpillars become a pupa, dissolve into a puddle of goo on the inside, and then re-form as a butterfly. As I’ve interacted with caterpillar enthusiasts through the years, they often politely inform me that this is a bit of an oversimplification. (To be fair, the Radiolab in question is really a beautiful meditation on the Ship of Theseus Paradox rather than a detailed description of the mechanisms of metamorphosis.)

But, where do the legs go? What we’ve seen in recent years, thanks to advanced imaging technologies, is that many of the “structures” that butterflies and caterpillars share — breathing tubes, digestion, etc — are reshaping themselves dramatically, but don’t actually completely dissolve into “goo.” And it turns out the legs are one of those “structures.”

 
 

Which gets us to the main misunderstanding that prompts this question: caterpillars have a bunch of legs, and butterflies only have six. Believe it or not, that’s not true! Caterpillars have six “true legs” up front and then toward the back they have any number of “prolegs.” (This gives us the opportunity to link gratuitously to the beautiful photos of New Hampshire’s Caterpillar Lab.) My favorite Twitter insect biologist Gwen Pearson calls the prolegs “blurpy, blobby legs”... like if you could use a roll of fat for your locomotion. Those prolegs will liquify and be put to use building other parts of the butterfly, but the true legs will eventually become the butterflies legs.

Ta-da!


Question 2: Anonymous from Montague, MA asks: 

“I’ve heard about some animals being pretty gay. And sometimes they only mate to make baby animals… otherwise they hang out with other genders, just for fun. So basically, how queer are animals, which ones are the gayest? I’d love to know."

We joke that we should be thankful our listeners who call in with their questions prefer to get answers from us rather than simply googling their questions. This is one of those cases, because a quick search will connect you with what is perhaps the greatest wikipedia page of all time.

To get us up to speed on this one, we called Carin Bondar — TV host, TED talker, and author of two books on animal sex. She said, “In the animal Kingdom, I frankly have yet to find an animal who isn’t at least a little bit gay. They are all queer.” Indeed, if you want lots of touching accounts of same-sex bird partners pairing up to rear an adopted egg or chick, you should set aside about 10 minutes to peruse that wikipedia page, or even better, read the New York Times account of two captive penguins named Roy and Silo.

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We should note, that overwhelmingly animals are actually bisexual; they are willing to have sex more or less indiscriminately with whoever else is up for it. Exclusive homosexuality — as in animals that will refuse to mate with animals of the opposite sex — has only been observed in sheep. (Quick science caveat here: “observed” is an important word in that sentence. There could be plenty other gay-not-bisexual animals out there… but it’s hard to observe every waking moment of every wild animal’s life.) Depending on the study, somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of rams will reject ewes and only mount other rams.

This question also alludes to the fact that there are many animals that don’t really like to hang out in coed groups the the same way that we do. Female albatross, for instance, “do not seek male partnership for anything besides sperm,” said Bondar. Does that makes them queer? To answer that question would be to anthropomorphize, which is either totally fine or a terrible idea, depending who you ask.


Question 3: Jerom in Dallas, TX asks:

“If the basis of a living fossil is that it’s genetic makeup hasn’t changed a whole lot over a couple thousand years, like alligators and such... forgive me if I’m wrong but humans haven’t changed a whole lot over a couple thousand years, so would we be considered human fossils or what are we?”

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First, Jerom? Jerome? Jerum? Sorry if we are getting your name wrong dude.

This term comes straight from Darwin himself in On the Origin of Species. He wrote that living fossils were creatures that are “a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive” and have “apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station.” Which is to say, they emerged as a new species a long time ago, and have occupied a quiet little niche ever since. Horseshoe crabs, alligators, coelacanths, sharks have all been characterized as living fossils.

However, immediately the problem with this question is the lack of consensus over the definition of living fossil, as paleontology blogger Brian Switek has ranted. In fact, he points out that if we use Jerom/Jerum’s definition — which alludes to genetic make-up — then there are definitely no living fossils, since at the genetic level we are an absolute “riot” of change. But under a more lax definition, we are absolutely living fossils, since we exist in the fossil record, and we’re still around today.

So rather than trying to answer this question, I’m going to propose we switch to a more restrictive and easily defined definition of living fossil. Like the coelacanth and metasequoia, the term should only be used to describe species that we first discovered as a fossil, and only later realized were still alive. Boom. Easy.

(And by this standard we are not living fossils, which I think is the best indication that this is a better definition.)


Question 4: Katherine from Austin, TX asks:

“How much does it costs on average to ride on the elevator rather than taking the stairs. I was in a building in Austin, Texas it was just a two story building with a very very slow big elevator. And I thought, I wonder what it costs in terms of installing the elevator, maintenance and upkeep on the elevator and then just the energy to make it go up and down?”

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Ah, there is nothing more satisfyingly righteous than judging people for being slightly lazier than us. Even among the elevator-riders in our office (which, for the record, is on the sixth floor) there is judging.

“Are you really riding the elevator up to just the second floor?” *scoff*
“Are you riding the elevator down one floor to the basement?” *incredulous guffaw*
“Me? No, no, I’m going all the way to the sixth floor. That’s much different.”

So, yes, elevators use energy. How much energy they use depends entirely on the type of elevator, though and results vary widely. Want to nerd out? Find out the details of your elevator and enter them into this nifty calculator. I put in the details for our office's two 6-story elevators and found that each one uses somewhere around 4,600 KWh. To put that in context, that's about the same as what the electric hot water tank that you might have in your basement uses, which is to say not very much in the grand scheme of things.

What this really comes down to is the fact that elevators are actually a shockingly efficient means of conveyance. They run up and down a fixed, low-friction path, and when they rise up they are actually storing potential energy, which they can use again for the return trip down. And let’s not forget what elevators make possible: they make buildings handicap accessible, they make moving heavy furniture up and down floors less awful, and they provide time in which strangers can stand and have short awkward exchanges or eavesdrop on fragments of other people's’ conversations… valuable stuff! So I don’t think it’s fair to say we could get rid of elevators entirely, and save ourselves the "embodied energy" of building and installing the things.

Translation: if you’re looking to save energy, by all means take the stairs (and hey, you'll get some likely much-needed exercise!), but if you're looking to dole out shame on friends and co-workers in order to get them to change their behavior, there is lower hanging fruit. When Slate’s Nina Rastogi got this question back in 2009, she calculated you use less energy taking the elevator than is saved after four hours by switching from an incandescent to a CFL.

Now, if you want me to scoff at something, don’t get me started on those silly “vintage” lightbulbs, or people who think driving a hybrid car gives them an excuse to drive as much as they want.


Question 5: Kenneth from Penacook, NH asks:

“I’ve heard tale of some crazy people out there who ride their bike to work in sub-zero temperatures, and I’d like to ask Sam specifically: what would lead someone to do such a foolish thing?"

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Confession, I knew this question was coming… because Twitter, and because I talked about my bike commuting system on twitter. So you can take the shortcut and just read that thread, if you’d like. But just as a heads up, the trolls are in there too, and some of them are my co-workers. If you don’t like the social media, here’s the summary: I rode my bike to work when it was -18 degrees Fahrenheit and was bragging about it a little bit.

If you want to have something to brag about on Twitter, the challenge is to keep your hands, feet and face warm. For really cold days, I do have a couple of pieces of special equipment — Bar Mitts, neoprene shoe covers, and a couple of Buffs. You won’t look good (sorry, did I not mention that part earlier?) but you can totally equip yourself for less than the price of a couple tanks of gas. Apart from those items, all you need is to just wear a whole ton of layers. Put on all your clothes, one on top of the other and you should arrive at work toasty warm, if not a little sweaty.


BONUS ROUND... Sam Ruined It

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Introducing a new segment on Ask Sam, idea courtesy of Outside/In contributor Cordelia Zars, in which Sam takes something that you think is a good thing, and lets you know that it's actually not that awesome!

Today on Sam Ruined It, Sam ruins hybrid cars for all of us.

Turns out, they're not really much better than your standard gas guzzlers.

Don't believe him? Just wait! Sam found this chart and helpfully circled two popular hybrid cars for you. The taller the bar, the more CO2 emissions over the life of your car. Which means that your Prius is barely better on the emissions front than your neighbor's diesel-powered Ford Focus. And the Prius is a top performer on the mileage front, get something a little bigger and suddenly you would have been better off just buying a gas-only Volvo. Oof. That one stings. 

TTW stands for "tank-to-wheels." That line will show you CO2 emissions produced by burning fuel in a vehicle. And the line representing WTT, "well-to-tank," is showing you the emissions produced over the life cycle of the fuel before it gets to your car, from its primary source to the point at which you get that fuel at the pump. Take-away: you don't get a pass for driving, no matter what you drive.

To the Nissan Leaf, Batman! 

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Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Taylor Quimby, Maureen McMurray, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez and Justine Paradis.

Special thanks to Nick Capodice, the one-man barbershop quartet who made our "Sam Ruined It" theme song.

The Ask Sam Theme is by Taylor Quimby.

The Outside/In Theme is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 51: Vultures Inherit The Earth

The Bicknell's Thrush is a bird that can only live in a few very very restricted places. It spends its summers in dense alpine forests in the Northeast of the US. In the winter, perhaps as many as 90 percent of the birds fly to the Dominican Republic. It's a bird without many options, and that makes it a poster child for what's to come. 

“Our bird”—that’s what conservationists in New England call the Bicknell’s Thrush. Why do they love it so much? It’s not a particularly comely bird. It’s almost entirely indistinguishable from the much more common gray-cheeked thrush. It has a nice song, but it’s about as endearing as any other song bird you might notice in the woods. What gets the Bicknell’s thrush its the moniker is simply that you can’t find it anywhere else.

“They’ve pigeon-holed themselves into a pretty narrow ecological niche,” says Chris Rimmer, director of executive director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, a little research and conservation outfit that has taken up the challenge of trying to study and conserve the thrush.
 
That ecological niche is so small it’s almost comical. In the summer, the birds stick to “thick stands of stunted conifers on steep mountain slopes or near tree-line” according to the researcher that successfully argued the bird should be considered its own species, back in 1993. That means we’re talking about a handful of weather-beaten, high mountain peaks in the northeast of the U.S. and Southern Quebec. In the winter, the birds fly south, and nearly all of them head to the same place. Rimmer says that somewhere around 90 percent of Bicknell’s thrushes spend the winter in wet forests in the interior of the Dominican Republic.

In other words, the Bicknell’s thrush is a specialist: on both ends of its range, it lives only in a very narrow band of habitats. They don’t seem to know how to live anywhere else. “If these habitats disappear from our mountain tops,” explains Rimmer, “I don’t think the birds are going to just find a different place to go.”
 
Consider, now, another bird, one nobody seems to call “our bird,” though it has its aficionados: The turkey vulture.
 
“I think turkey vultures are just about a perfect creature,” says Katie Fallon, author of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. “They breed from south central Canada, throughout most of North America, Central America, and all of South America. They’re even on islands... Caribbean Islands... the Falkland Islands. They’re a bird that can be seen by almost everyone in the hemisphere.”
 
Turkey vultures aren’t picky. They will nest in dark crevices, abandoned buildings, the nests of other birds, mammal burrows, and even quiet spots on the forest floor, if nothing else is available. They are also shockingly efficient. When soaring, their heart-rate is nearly the same as when they are sleeping, which has even led some to suggest turkey vultures might actually take quick naps while flying. This is just one of the many delightful facts about these birds—my personal favorite is that their stomachs are acidic enough that it can neutralize cholera, botulism and anthrax.

When you add these various evolutionary talents up, you get an animal that is poised for success in virtually any habitat; basically, you have a generalist on your hands.
 
The world is made up of many species, and any one of them will loosely either fit the profile of a generalist or a specialist. That has always been true. What is newly true is that species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and many scientists believe we’re seeing the beginnings of something that will eventually be recognized as a mass extinction event.

“If these habitats disappear from our mountain tops, I don’t think the birds are going to just find a different place to go.”

And the problem is that these extinctions are not distributed equally. They’re coming for the specialists first.
 
“There’s really a striking common pattern that specialist species are declining everywhere,” explains Romaine Julliard, a researcher with the National Museum for Natural History in Paris, who co-authored a paper on the subject with the striking sub-title: toward a global functional homogenization? He say he found the decline “in coral fish, marsupials in Australia, and bumblebees in the UK, and some plants.”
 
But what’s intriguing about the trend is that the decline of specialists is “almost balanced by the increase in population size of generalist species.” Julliard has studied European birds in particular, and he found that while the abundance of specialist birds has declined 20 percent, numbers of generalists has increased by 20 to 25 percent.
 
We see this in our tale of two birds as well. The Bicknell’s thrush is losing habitat at both ends of its range. The high, coniferous forests are retreating upslope towards oblivion as climate change warms the Northeast, and illegal agriculture has eaten into the national parks that serve as the bird’s refuge in the Dominican Republic. There are estimated to be around 100,000 of the birds in total, and the species is on several lists of birds that the conservation community is concerned about.

a baby turkey vulture in its nest

a baby turkey vulture in its nest

The turkey vulture—in contrast with the Bicknell’s thrush—is thriving. Roadkill on our highways has created what amounts to a massive network of turkey vulture smorgasbords, crisscrossing the nation. Because the black asphalt absorbs and re-radiates heat during the day, these serpentine buffets also act as a ready source of thermal updrafts for the birds to surf along, spreading their ever-growing population to every nook and cranny of the hemisphere. Fallon says that 25 years ago the birds were estimated to number around 5 million, but today that number has risen to nearly 20 million worldwide.
 
This is the current trajectory we are on: The beautiful finely tuned specialists, hyper-efficient little motors built to extract calories from their own very, very specific habitats, are on the way out. As they vanish, the generalists—admittedly, marvels of flexibility and adaptation in their own right—are ascendant, rising to fill the space that’s left behind.

What’s behind this shift? According to Julliard, to date, it’s just regular old habitat loss. “Even though the climate change footprint on pressure on biodiversity is increasing and the evidence for that is increasing, it’s still likely lower than habitat degradation,” he says. In fact, a paper on extinction risk that was published in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences came to the same conclusion: Large animals are most at risk from us eating them, small animals are at risk because we are destroying the places they live.

We already see the same starlings and house sparrows in almost any city anywhere in the world. Could we get to a future where the skies are full of nothing but turkey vultures, and the oceans are populated entirely by jellyfish?

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Is there anything wrong with this push toward functional homogenization? We already see the same starlings and house sparrows in almost any city anywhere in the world. Could we get to a future where the skies are full of nothing but turkey vultures, and the oceans are populated entirely by jellyfish? To me that feels like a nightmare scenario—something from Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, except minus the genetic engineering.
 
Julliard has a reminder for me: “Evolution is really a force that drives to specialization and to differentiation,” he says. Pointing out that just as soon as we stop doing all the things that make life hard on them, the specialists will start to thrive again, and given enough time, speciation of new specialists will start to pick up again.
 
This reassurance is thanks to one of the tenets of ecological niche theory: In a stable habitat, natural selection favors the specialist. Which means “you need really a very high pressure to maintain this homogenization,” he says.
 
The problem, of course, is that the time-scales involved are deeply out of whack with our human experience. The world can recover from a whole heck of a lot, but that can take millions of years, and the world we’ll inhabit in the meantime will be a deeply impoverished one in comparison. And more to the point, who knows if we’ll even be around to watch the birds that repopulate that sky, to call them our own.


 

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy,  and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions, Poddington Bear, David Szesztay, Jason Leonard and Ikimashoo Aoi.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.