Episode 50: Ask Sam

The Ask Sam hotline has been blowing up lately! Not like the Galaxy 7, no. In a good way! So Sam, along with a couple of producers from the Outside/In team, took a moment to answer your questions about tree killing, grass eating and the sound in the woods that scared the colonists away. And that's just to name a few. Somebody even gets a trail name out of this one.

Question 1: Trevor in Bailey, CO asks:

"Is the tradition we have of bringing flowers to funerals and cemeteries propagating invasive species?"

Trevor, what's your story? You a man of the cloth? A gravedigger? A mourner? Whatever the deal, calling us from a cemetery with your question about cemeteries really set the scene. We applaud your commitment to the hotline... and to the ceaseless pursuit of knowledge about the outside world.

So, Sam played in-studio expert here and you can rest in peace, Trevor! Those funeral flowers probably aren't doing anything to mess with the delicate balance of the graveyard, or lands graveyard-adjacent. First of all, those flowers are likely picked, cut, and artfully arranged before an insect can get around to pollinating. No pollination, no seed.  Not to mention the fact that most florist blooms are annuals. They've got one shot to impress, and then they're gone for good. They're also delicate. That leaves them with pretty rotten chances in the invasion business. Sam says funeral flowers don't stand much of a chance against robust greenery.

That said, if you're in Maine laying a bouquet at the grave of your late cat in a mysterious place that your neighbor Jud took you to, well. All bets are off. Sam didn't speak to the fate of flowers in the pet cemetary.

Question 2: Gregory in MA asks:

"I am sitting across from my neighbor's tree and it is just pissing me off. It is really big and obnoxious, and I was wondering what the punishment is if I just poisoned it and made it come down on its own."

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Look, Gregory, we're not lawyers over here or anything. But producing a podcast is kind of like going to law school, right? Right?Either way, producer Hannah McCarthy took your case. Congratulations!

This crime is on the books in your state, Gregory. It's actually on the books pretty much everywhere because people killing other people's trees is a popular past time. What is it about these tall drinks of pulp that makes people snap like a dead branch? Whatever the reason, Massachusetts Neighbor and Tree law says you could go away for up to six months for injuring someone else's tree. It's more likely, though, that you'll just be fined for three times the assessed value of the 'ol leafy giant. And a mature tree goes for anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000. So, unless you're looking to shell out thirty grand to your tree-hugging neighbor, this not-lawyer is going to recommend against the surreptitious offing of the offending arbor.

Now, if you were going to poison a tree, and do so without getting caught, the internet is flush with helpful information. Especially the forums of cycling websites. Don't ask me why, Gregory, but I do want to point out that our own Sam Evans-Brown is an avid cyclist. Coincidence? 

Yeah. Probably. Sam loves trees.

Question 3: Eric in Philadelphia, PA asks: 

"On the "Tell Me Something I Didn't Know," podcast, I learned the weight we lose when we lose weight is exhaled via carbon dioxide when we breathe, and I was just curious, or had the assumption that if everyone on Earth lost the weight that we need to lose to be at, I guess, a regular BMI, would that have any measurable impact on CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and could that have any impact on global warming."

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It may sound like a load of hot air, but it's true! If you trace the atoms in fat being lost, most of them are exhaled as carbon dioxide. The rest becomes water. Just think... every time you throw Terms of Endearment on for a good cry, that could be former fat falling down your cheeks. Weird.

As for whether a weight loss craze could put a dent in the atmosphere, well, Sam says a couple billion jazzercisers can't really compare to the Industrial Revolution. But we're a facts-based operation over here, so Sam Good-Will-Hunted this one for you, Eric.


Here's the rundown. There are approximately 2.1 billion overweight people on Earth, all an average of 20 pounds overweight. Those 20 pounds are about 18-percent carbon. So, if everyone who is overweight lost twenty pounds, it would release about 3.3 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of the amount of carbon produced by 698,339 cars. So, a little more than all of the cars in Florida. Now, I know what you're thinking. Dang! That's a lot of carbon! Better discourage that whole "jogging" thing. But here's the deal. That's only 0.08-percent of global carbon emissions.

So, in short, no. Even if everyone worked their tucheses off to get in shape, it wouldn't make a measurable difference as far as global warming goes. 

It's not your fault, Fat. It's not your fault.

Question 4: Rhine* in Purvis, MS asks:

"I've been told my entire life that when dogs and cats eat grass, it's because they  have intestinal worms, but my dog has had fecal tests and takes a de-wormer pill every month. So, I know he doesn't have any intestinal worms, but he still eats grass occasionally. So, I'm just wondering if there's any truth to that claim that animals will eat grass if they have worms. And if so, why? And do all animals do that?"

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Look, who among us hasn't gone for a walk and munched on some Bermuda, or sampled the neighbor's finest Fescue? But are we doing it to keep the worms at bay? Well, to get to the root of this belly scratcher, producer Jimmy Gutierrez placed a call to someone who knows a thing or two about weird pet habits.

See, Jimmy's cat, Juanito, has something in common with your canine companion, Ryan.* He's got his go-to activities in the great outdoors. Watch birds, walk under cars, eat grass. And every time Juanito indulges? Well, it kind of seems like that grass isn't agreeing with him. Because it comes right back up. Jimmy's theory? Juanito's stayin' regular. But he called his favorite animal doc to confirm. 

We hate to disappoint, Brian*, but New Hampshire-based veterinarian Allison Frontz says this one remains a mystery, "There truly is not an answer to the question. Dogs and cats will eat grass really for no apparent reason. " Dr. Frontz says that it's commonly thought that animals eat grass in order to throw up, but that's really only based on the fact that so many do when they eat it. There's no evidence to show that Juanito actually needs to throw up in that moment, through. Animal scientists have studied this behavior and concluded that, well, some cats and dogs just like to eat grass. 

Dr. Frontz does recommend that you stop your pet from regularly eating grass if it makes them throw up, because nobody needs to be getting sick every day.

*Okay, we admit it. We couldn't make out your name on the tape, Rhine-Ryan-Brian. We haven't been able to enjoy a single bite of grass since.

Question 5: Shredder* in VA on the Appalachian Trail asks:

"We are all New Englanders but we've come down here in the South and we've made it to Virginia and we keep hearing this strange noise everywhere and we don't know if it's an insect or a bird or a frog, and I feel like I've failed my friends as the one with the forestry degree, so I'm just gonna hold my phone out and let the sound be heard and see if any of you guys know what it is."

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I mean, we don't want to suggest you've wasted your time and money and energy on that forestry degree or anything, but Sam knew what this was right away, so...

Just kidding, Shredder! You've just hiked thousands of miles through the thing that you've got a degree in, so you put us all to shame.

Anyway, there are katydids in them there hills! Of the Tettigoniidae family, for those of us with a forestry degree. Our friends across the pond call 'em bush crickets, and some old-schoolers refer to these wee beasties as long-horned grasshoppers. Whatever you call them, these guys are loud. The sound that you're hearing out there on the trail, Shredder, is a bug song made when these guys rub their forewings together. The upper wing, called the file, has a serrated edge. The lower wing scrapes against the file to produce a heck of a tune. Put thousands of these musicians in one place and you get a pretty overwhelming sound. So overwhelming, Sam explains, that when European colonists first encountered the katydid song they were scared silly of the shrieking in the woods. 

There are 258 identified species of katydid, and each species has it's own distinct sound. That's because these songs really only have one purpose: to attract a mate. The different songs, otherwise known as trills, are designed to attract females of the same species. So whenever you're lying under the stars, cursing this deafening late-summer sound, just remember... it's a love song. Or, a couple hundred love songs, all played at the same time. So romantic. 

Katydids are most commonly found in the Southern part of the United States, so that's why you might be unfamiliar with them. And these insects would be pretty hard to spot -- they're designed to blend into their surroundings, mimicking leaves while they rest during the day. So, Shredder, you've far from failed your friends. Besides, you were the one clever enough to call the Ask Sam hotline!

*Shredder is a trail name (the name fellow hikers give you on the Appalachian Trail). We asked Shredder to give Jimmy a trail name, but she demurred. So, Sam let Jimmy have GZA, even though Mr. Gary Grice of Wu-Tang kind of already has it.

Question 6: Claire in St. George, ME asks:

"I'm wondering whether harbor seals and other aquatic life know if it's raining or not."

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We didn't spend much time guessing on this one, Claire. Between the nature of sounds in the ocean and harbor seals' notoriously reticent ways, Sam decided to go straight to an expert.

Enter Jim Harvey of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, CA. We caught Jim at a good time, because he'd recently heard some data from the Monterey Bay aquarium. turns out they've got a hydrophone in the bay that's listening to sounds in the ocean. And that hydrophone has picked up the sound of rain on the ocean's surface at almost a thousand feet below. So, Jim says, "the answer is that if the harbor seals have [hearing as good] as the hydrophone, then, yes, certainly seals should be able to hear rain if they were underwater, if they can hear that frequency." 

Harbor seals have hearing similar to that of a cat or dog when they're on land, and that hearing improves once they're under water. So, Claire, it's certainly possible that these sea dogs (as well as other aquatic life) can hear a rainstorm even when they're underwater. 

But what about on land? Jim says he's spent plenty of time observing harbor seals, and that they tend to tolerate a light rain. But when things get heavy, you'll see them escape the storm by slipping underwater. 

Oh, and one more thing! It isn't relevant to rain, but it is adorable. Seals do this thing called bottling, resting with their head above water and their bodies submerged. And Jim says they'll dip below the water, rest on the ocean floor for a moment, and then bob back up. For hours. And when they just float on their sides? That's called logging. A mysterious and noble creature.

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Jimmy Gutierrez and Hannah McCarthy.

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.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode includes tracks from Podington Bear and Ari De Niro Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 42: Eat the Invaders & Ask Sam Round-up

This week we attempt to not only eat the invaders, but drink them as well. And this time, most of us were on board. Also, the Ask Sam hotline gets some attention as Sam answers questions about bird feeders, black flies, storm clouds, and dew.

Eat/Drink the Invaders

If you have Japanese knotweed in your yard, chances are you curse at it, hack away at it, do anything to try and kill it. But we thought we should at least *try* to eat it, and we found a guy who even found a way to drink it. Plus we put some in between two slices of bread which was weird, but not that weird.

Ask Sam Round-Up

Since we launched the toll free version of our Ask Sam hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837), people have been calling day and night with all manner of questions for Sam about the outdoor world. This time we talk to two different Sarahs (Saras? Or is it Sarah and Sara? Or vice versa?) one about birds, the other about black flies. Then Sam answers a question about thunderstorms and the clouds that accompany them, plus uncovers the mystery behind dew. So pop some popcorn, settle in, and get ready for the Ask Sam round-up.

Question 1: Sarah from Albuquerque, NM asks:

"I have a lot of bird feeders in my yard and I really like to watch the song birds, and my indoor cats chatter at them through the window. But a co-worker told me that feeding the birds, even if it's high quality bird food is actually harmful for them, because it makes them stay in places longer then they normally would if they are migratory, that it disrupts their natural diet. So is that true? Am I hurting the song birds in our eco-system by putting out bird feeders? Tell me if I'm a bird killer or not."

This is a question that has preoccupied the “don’t mess with the ecosystem” wing of the environmental movement for a long time. And there are three concerns:

1. Are We Messing With Their Migration?

Are we encouraging birds that should be migrating to stay in place, when they should be migrating? We’re worried about this because if they leave their summer range too late maybe they will suffer later in their migration: starve to death… freeze to death… get eaten by winter weasels… something. The counterpoint to this concern is that birds likely start migrating based on the change of the seasons—shorter days, colder temperatures—not availability of food.

2. Are They Getting More Diseases From Hanging Out At the Feeder?

When birds are all packed together because they’re clamoring to get these delicious seeds and nuts, are they then transmitting diseases to each other that they wouldn’t normally get? The worry here is that disease might lead to higher mortality than if the birds had to fend for themselves.

3. Are We Making Them Dependent Upon Us For Food?

Finally, what if you feed birds religiously for years, and then you move away or are kidnapped by pirates and suddenly the bird feeders vanish? Will the birds be dependent on you feeding them and not know how to feed themselves while you’re away?

Thankfully this question has been studied. (Thank goodness for science, or else we would have to call this segment “How the Hell Should Sam Know?”) The study that I found that seemed to best address the first two concerns was done using data from something called Project Feederwatch, which used data from backyard birdwatchers to assess the state of bird species that regularly hang around bird feeders. Think about it, if feeding birds were causing them to die while migrating or die from disease, you would expect the populations of the birds that eat at feeders to decline… right? Because it’s bad for them, right?

But that’s not the case, usually they’re doing just about the same, or maybe slightly better than the birds that never visit feeders.

And on the last point: do birds get dependent on feeders? This was tested twice on chickadees in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They set out feeders for a whole bunch of chickadees and then after two years of feeding them, they took the feeders away.

The result? No effect. Chickadees in the areas that lost their feeders and the ones that kept their feeders had the same survival rates.

So, are you a bird killer? All evidence points to “No.” For now, feed with a clear conscience!

Question 2: Sara from Dunnsville, VA asks

"I have several friends who have hiked the Appalachian trail, thru-hik ed it, and another friend who's about to start, and she's starting up in Maine in June and we were talking about how she needs to get a head net to protect herself from all the black flies in Maine and in other parts of the Northeast. So my question is, why are black flies such a problem up in the Northeast, but they're not really problematic at all down here in the south?"

I love this question so much. I used to lead Wilderness Trips up in this region and I remember evenings when the black flies were so bad that we would spend the whole afternoon cowering in our tents, or cook dinner swathed in rain coats and rain pants even in the middle of summer. I remember a camper who had never been exposed to black flies before, was bit so many times her eyes nearly swelled shut the next day. So if you’ve never experienced a proper black fly swarm, be warned: when it happens, it’s intense and terrible.

The truth is, as Elmer Gray of the North American of Black Fly Association told me, there are black flies in the south, but there aren’t swarms of them. In places where the winters and therefore the streams and rivers are colder, the black fly season is short and concentrated. This is because the cold slows the development of the fly larva, and makes it so that the flies can only lay eggs once per year (they are “univoltine”) instead of the black flies in warmer parts of the world that can develop faster and have more than one generation per year (“bivoltine” or “multivoltine”).

In other words, we cram an entire year’s worth of black flies into one, three-week long, black fly season, as all of the black flies in the region race to come out from the rivers, find something to bite, and then mate and lay eggs so the next generation can start to mature again as quickly as possible, and do it all again the next year.

And if you start the Appalachian Trail in reverse in June, you’re headed straight into the belly of that beast. Oh, and haven’t you heard? Less river pollution means black flies are doing better than decades ago. Steel yourself.

Question 3: Margie from Concord asks

"A couple of years ago, I started noticing that the clouds just seemed enormous, just towering high. And maybe they're the same as they always have been and always will be, but my first thought was: 'There go our icebergs.' I just wondered if there is any connection between icebergs melting and cloud formation, height of clouds, volume of clouds."

Those clouds that you’re referring to are called cumulonimbus clouds: they’re the big piles of clouds shaped like anvils that create lightning storms, and while there are several ways these storms can form, the most important ingredients are hot air mass rising up through a cold air mass in a process called “convection.”

Now the question of how will climate change effect clouds is a very, very complicated one that is being worked on by lots of smart climatologists creating detailed and complicated climate models. But in general terms, the thing to remember is that warm air can hold more moisture, and so it’s a safe bet that a warmer globe will mean more clouds.

Now at the same time, we have an observed that here in the Northeast, over the past 50 years or so, the number of rain storms that drop 2 inches of rain in 24 hours have increased by 71%. And not only that, but Jonathan Winter, a Dartmouth climate scientist has looked at this data and recently found that most of this increase came in one large “step” that occurred mostly all around the late 90s. That sounds like the kind of thing that someone like Margie would notice!

Winter says a lot of these extreme rain events were in the summer, so it’s a good bet that a good chunk of them were these “convective” (*ahem* thunder) storms. BUT, his next study is to look more precisely into what kind of storms are on the rise. So we need only wait until that study comes out to answer Margie’s question for sure.

Now… are those clouds *actually* our icebergs? Meh, who knows.

Question 4: Emily from Tuscaloosa, AL asks:

"I'm a preschool teacher and I was taking my kids out onto the playground this morning, and we always have to check to see if the playground is wet, and since we go out so early, the ground is always wet because there's dew on the ground. I was just curious as to what causes the dew, because it can not rain overnight, and I know it has something to do with a drop in temperature at night, but what cause dew to fall down on our ground." 

This is one of those questions that I really like because answering it helps you to understand one of those fundamental properties of the world that shapes all sorts of little things that affect you.

So, for starters, there’s water in the air, and some days there is more water than other days. You know this as humidity. However, that dew exists flows from a single fact: the warmer the air is, the more water that air can hold.

Maybe you’ve heard of the “dew point” in some weather forecast or another. The dew point is the temperature at which dew will begin to form in the overnight hours. So say it’s summer-time in Alabama and the air is warm and humid. But then the sun goes away and that warm air starts to cool. Eventually it will cool so much that it won’t be able to hold all that water, and some of it will fall out (or precipitate!) as dew!

Graph of Dewpoint vs. Air Temperature at Varying Relative Humidities. Based on the Magnus-Tetens approximation.

Graph of Dewpoint vs. Air Temperature at Varying Relative Humidities. Based on the Magnus-Tetens approximation.

So what does this mean for your life? It means when you see a high dew point, you know that the air is pretty full of water and maybe you’re gonna want to turn on the air conditioner, or if it’s insufferably humid, you know that will be a bad night to sleep outside, because you’re going to get absolutely drenched.

Oh, and also! Once you know about dew point, you’re equipped to understand another weather number: relative humidity. When you see a relative humidity of 100%, that means you’re right at the dew point, the air can hold no more water, and water is condensing out of the air and evaporating into the air at exactly the same rate. This number is “relative” because it takes less water to fully saturate the air at lower temperatures, so 100% relative humidity when it’s 40 degrees out won’t feel particularly swampy.

What other ways does this knowledge help you? Why do your glasses get foggy when you walk inside in the winter? Moist warm air hits the cold glass and the moisture falls out all over your lenses. Why does your cold beer get covered with condensation? Warm air hits cold beer. Why is there frost on the inside of your window? I could literally keep going all day with these.

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez and Logan Shannon.

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.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode includes tracks from Podington Bear and Ari De Niro Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.