Ask Sam: Hair of the Dog, Walking Fish and the Truth About Palm Trees

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Curiosity abounds in the listener ranks and the Ask Sam Hotline (1-844-GO-OTTER) has been ringing off the hook! Sam and the gang tackle your questions about decorative fountains, land fish and the difference between dog hair and dog fur. Oh, and think you love wood stoves? Think again. It's time for another Sam Ruined It!


Question 1: Sam from Salt Lake City, UT asks:

"Do decorative fountains waste water? And how much water do they waste?"

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The answer to this question is a big old yes... and also no. Fountains typically recirculate the water, so any “waste” is due to evaporation, and shooting water into the air in a desert environment is a pretty good way to ensure that you lose a lot of water due to evaporation. Exactly how much you lose depends on the design of the fountain, and seems to vary anywhere from a few gallons a week for a little backyard number, to 12 million gallons for the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. 

Which leads me to my “no” which is to remind you of middle school science: water that evaporates isn’t destroyed, it just precipitates as rain somewhere else. Of course, if you live in a city your water supplies are inherently limited by the capacity of your municipal water system, especially if you live in a city in the desert (like *ahem* Salt Lake City), so any use of water can be a problem. But if you live in a wet region and have your own well, the water you “use” is really just being borrowed for a few days before you return it to the atmosphere or the watershed.

But every drop of water you use has an energy footprint. Municipal water has to be pumped out of the ground, treated, pumped to you home, pumped away as sewage, treated again, and pumped back into the world as wastewater. Nationwide, its estimated to account for 4 percent of our electricity use, and in California (which has absolutely bonkers water infrastructure) it’s more like 19 percent.

So yeah, decorative fountains pump water around for no real reason and waste energy and are kinda silly. There I said it, happy?


Question 2: Erica from Dover, NH asks:

"If all dogs came from wolves, how did hair get into their species?"

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Oh a dog question. People really love dogs.

This prompts the sub-question: what is the difference between hair and fur? And the answer is that there really isn’t any difference. There are just different kinds of hair that grow to different lengths, have different follicle density, and have different consistencies. (Fun fact: whiskers, porcupine quills, feathers and pangolin scales are all made of the same stuff as hair.) With dogs what we typically mean when we talk about a dog that has hair instead of fur is that it doesn’t have an “undercoat” which is the layer of short, soft, dense hairs that lay close to the animal’s body. In other words, we say a dog has “hair” if it has a single coat and “fur” if it has a double coat. 

According to Jessica Heckman, a research veterinarian at the MIT/Harvard Broad Institute, we have identified the gene that controls whether a dog will have a single or double coat, and the mutation that led to single coated dogs happened a long time ago, well before we started breeding dogs. We know this because you can identify single-coated village dogs (the so-called Ur Dog… dogs that are self-domesticated but not bred) and Jessica guesses that this mutation persisted because “the lack of the undercoat would be advantageous in hotter parts of the world.” 

So there you go! Your bichon frise is a mutant superhero dog!


Question 3: Mirey from Eatonville, WA asks:

"I am wondering why there are aquatic mammals, amphibians, and reptiles and semi-aquatic birds, but there are no terrestrial fish?"

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You mean besides that thing from The Shape of Water, right?

It’s a little difficult to make hard and fast rules as to what is a fish, but of course generally speaking they breath with gills, so “they’re all going to have to go back into the water ultimately… they would just dessicate and die and suffocate,” says Melanie Stiassny, the Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History. (For the record, when I asked Melanie how one gets that job, she didn’t miss a beat and said, “Well you have to be super intelligent, obviously.” Stay in school, kids.)

But with that disclaimer aside, there are a veritable boatload of what we might call terrestrial fish. The mudskipper carries a bubble of air around its gills, allowing it to “hunt” (well, vacuum)  on land for hours or days. American eels can slither up wet dams or rocks to get past waterfalls as they migrate. There’s a whole panoply of terrifying invasive Asian fish that can survive days out of the water in order to move from one water body to the next.

But of course, we cannot forget the lungfish, a favorite of aquarium enthusiasts. These are thought to be the remnants of when life took its first step out of the oceans and ventured onto land, and can survive for up to two years in the mud when the water they are in dries up.


Questions 4: Jeff from Plainview, NY asks:

"Is it better environmentally to burn wood than it is to get the oil from the earth and all that scientific stuff?"

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Ahhh Jeff. The impossibility of being a human in the world. 

The problem with this question is that it weighs one type of harmful emissions (carbon dioxide) against another (lung-damaging particulate matter). The carbon emissions of burning cordwood for heat are extremely low — maybe even negative — assuming that the wood is coming from a forest that’s being managed sustainably (that’s a big if, of course). So if you’re trying to fight climate change, and aren’t quite ready to invest in a PassivHaus, wood scores fairly well on that front.

But woodstoves are also filthy… like more particulates than an old diesel truck. The newer the stove, the cleaner it will burn, and in 2020 (or perhaps later, given the way the political winds are blowing) new stoves will be required to be cleaner still. But even the new ones are bad for your lungs, your kids lungs, your neighbors lungs. So, it’s a cost benefit analysis.

Unless you have an open fireplace. Don’t even get me started on open fireplaces. So inefficient. So filthy. So stupid.


Question 5: Tova from Riverside, CA asks:

"Are palm trees good for anything? It gets really hot here, and they don’t provide any shade, and I’ve heard they’re really water inefficient, also they’re ugly. So do they provide any benefit?"

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Wow! Tova! Palm tree shade! (Or lack thereof?)

Indeed, you have heard correctly that some cities are reconsidering the use of palms as ornamental trees for something that might be a bit better at combating the heat island effect. And yes, certain palm trees evolved in tropical rain forests and require tons of water.

But generalizing across palm species is not possible, given that there are 2,600 species and they’ve been around since the cretaceous period. Many are evolved to grow in arid environments and would actually not require any watering at all. And indeed, the ones your looking at may be Southern California natives. Brian Bahder with the University of Florida says that when he has visited Los Angeles and San Diego “most of the palms that you see there are Washingtonia palms — the really tall ones that you see along the roadside — and then Phoenix palms.” He says both species are native and evolved in desert climates. 

So without seeing the specific palms on your specific campus, it’s hard to say exactly the story, but it’s not a given that those are very thirsty palms that you’re seeing, and indeed, they might take much less watering than say an oak tree. (Though, according to Alan Meerow with the USDA, almost all of them require regular fertilizing.)

Now, to defend palm trees more generally. Palms are AMAZING! The fact that they can get as big (nearly 200 feet!) and live as long as they do (as much as 700 years!) considering that they are actually more closely related to grass than to other trees, is “an amazing feat of vegetable engineering,” says Alan. (This engineering also equips them amazingly well to withstand hurricanes, by the by.) 

And please, let’s not ignore the amazing coconut, which is evolved to float from coral atoll to coral atoll, colonizing new islands all by itself. I mean, pretty cool, right?


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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.