Episode 37: Ask Sam Round-up

Since we launched the toll free version of our Ask Sam hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837), we've seen a real healthy uptick in queries. This time around we decided to ask Chris Martin of the New Hampshire Audubon, and Dave Anderson from the Forest Society to join Sam in our quest to answer your questions about the outdoor world. We've got everything from the geometry of wombat feces to planting trees by the light of the moon.

Question 1: Matt in Australia asks

"I do a bit of hiking up in the highlands where I live, and I noticed that wombats actually poo in cubes, so I did a bit of research and it said it stops it from rolling down hill. I was wondering if that would be beneficial, or not, to them?"

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Oh, Matt... Matt, Matt, Matt. You do know this show is based in New Hampshire, right? Your average New Hampshire naturalist is about as likely to know the difference between a wombat and a wallaby as we are to know how to survive a week in the bush in your shockingly deadly country. Regardless, we're nothing if not resourceful, and I can find you an answer.

The standard answer that you can find swimming around on the internet is that wombat poop is square to help mark their territory, but we called up Alyce Swinbourne, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, who is a little bit internet famous because she has figured out how to make wombats pee on demand. She doesn't buy the cube-shaped-scat-so-it-doesn't-roll-away explanation. "They're not a territorial animal," she says, "and they tend to have a latrine. They just go to a common area, where they poo."

Alyce thinks this is basically just an odd quirk resulting from wombats' incredibly efficient digestive process. "Essentially where they live is a semi-arid environment, and so their gut basically tries to compact and draw out as much water as possible... and so they come out as really compact, really really dry little bricks." She says that when working with wombats in captivity, who have constant access to water, this square shape goes away." They would look like little love hearts, or kidney bean shapes."

There you have it, Matt. Sometimes things, like wombat poop, are just weird. 


Question 2: Sally from Dover, New Hampshire asks 

"I was hiking this morning with my dog near Great Bay in Durham and I looked out over the water and I saw two swans and I took my phone out and I took some pictures, because I thought this was an exciting rare bird siting. But then I thought, I couldn't imagine that swans are native to New Hampshire. So I was wondering if swans are an invasive species? Were they someone's pet that got loose? I'm curious and I'd like to know."

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So many of our listeners come up with questions while wandering around outside! I love it!

Our resident bird-guy is Chris Martin, NH Audubon's senior biologist, and he was all over this question. North America does have two native swans—the trumpeter swan and the tundra swan, also known as the whistling swan after the noise its wings make in flight. However, his guess was that the bird Sally saw in Great Bay was most likely a mute swan, a bird introduced from Europe by wealthy folks who wanted the graceful birds to adorn their sprawling estates. Mute swans are big eaters, and can be very aggressive towards other waterfowl, (and hell, even towards people, as this poor soul found out) so local biologists aren't huge fans of them and many states have programs in place trying to reduce the population.

Ok, you've Asked Sam, now Sam Asks: why are all the swans named after the sounds they make/don't make?


Question 3: Tim asks

"Yesterday I was planting trees in my yard, and last night as I was lying in bed with the full moon's brightness kinda keeping me up, I thought about that old thing about, if you dig a hole during a full moon and you try to put all the soil back in during the wane moon, the soil won't fit in? Or it will? But my question translates to, does the volume of the earth, change with the moon? It's a broad question, but I'm curious."

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This question has been around FOREVER. You can find it discussed on gardening blogs, physics forums, and yes, the pages of the Old Farmer's Almanac. I personally don't think there's much of a question here: sometimes you dig a hole and fail to gather up all of the dirt that you scattered about and it seems like you've got too little, other times, (because you're probably digging a hole to put something in it) you fill your hole back up and there seems to be too much. But maybe I'm just a kill-joy. [Editors note: Sometimes Sam is a kill-joy. Other times he's just a party-pooper.]

However, this whole question of planting by the moon is "as old as dirt," according to Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac. The basic idea, she says, is that traditionally people believed that one should plant root crops when the moon is waning [going from full to new] and above-ground crops when the moon is waxing [going from new to full]. This belief "dates back to the ancients, and even the earliest almanacs dating back to the Egyptians were astrological," she explains. 

However, if you try to practice evidence-based gardening, you should know that it doesn't seem that anyone has really studied this in a controlled trial; probably because the science-y-est of the of science-y feel this is a silly question. That doesn't mean its not worth doing—Stillman says its a great way to "learn to observe" the natural cycles around us—and hey, it can't hurt.


Question 4: Bennett from Belfast, Maine asks

"I've had something that's been bothering me for a while, it has to do with this e-vo-lution and i was just thinking about, the other day, we was talking about shahks and they ain't changed much in a long time. But I'm under the impression that every generation of shahk that comes out or anything else for that matter, you got yourself, some of 'em, that are wicked suited to the environment that they was born in. And there's some of 'em that wahnt. And when you got an environment doesn't change much, then the ones that are most successful id be the ones that haven't mutated or nothin'. Dey ain't changed. So is that e-vo-lution in that situation or is there some other word for that? That's what I been wonderin'." [Editor's note: we really tried to capture the essence of this question in writing, but we strongly recommend listening to the audio for the full effect.]

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Well, it took our panel about 5 minutes to get on the same page with this question, simply because Bennett's spectacular (perhaps, somewhat enhanced?) Maine accent led two of us to believe he was asking about "shacks": as in the small out-building used to store tools or boil maple syrup. This question on its own is reason enough to listen to this week's episode, by the way.

However, we did eventually get back on track. The consensus is that Bennett was, in part, correct. Sharks haven't had to change quickly because their environment has changed fairly slowly. However, Chris Martin (again, as an "ologist" he gets to act as our resident devil's advocate) pointed out that there are obvious and dramatic examples of how sharks have evolved since their Devonian roots. Just think of the hammerhead shark's dramatic face-blades. If that's not an argument for the power of evolution, I don't know what is.

All of this is to say, that one can say that while sharks *are* incredibly ancient, they are *not* totally unchanged by time. In the words of one shark researcher, "Dating back at least 425 million years ago, sharks are among the oldest surviving vertebrate groups. But as we have seen, the popular conception of sharks as creatures that have somehow sidestepped the processes of evolution and arrived in our time virtually unchanged is pure bunk."

Oh, and if you'd like to hear about how shacks haven't really evolved much, you should listen to the podcast.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Thanks this week to Chris Martin and Dave Anderson for being some-what willing participants. You should also check out their podcast, Something Wild!

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

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

S02|E05: Ties That Bind

For alpinist Ben Clark, scaling the world’s toughest mountains is a source of pride and peace; for his mom and dad it is a source of constant worry. What's a parent to do if their son’s lifelong ambition puts him in harm’s way? Plus, The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. Later in the show, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! We're currently offering up our seasons for FREE! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

Parenting at 24,000 Feet

For alpinist Ben Clark, scaling the world’s toughest mountains was a source of pride and peace; for his parents it was a source of constant worry. After they learned to live with their son’s adventurous streak, Ben decided to quit the mountaineer life altogether. Why? The answer may surprise you.


Part 2

Up Against the Ropes

The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. In this story, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement - and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.


Part 3

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Ask Sam - A Question About Canine Bathroom Rituals

Rebecca Lavoie asks: “Why does it take my dog so long to figure out exactly where it is that he wants to go to the bathroom? Number one, number two...it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of pickiness going on. On-leash, off-leash, on walks on the road, running free…it doesn’t matter. Location seems to be incredibly important and I want to know why?”

Well Rebecca, (who is, full-disclosure, our digital director here at NHPR, and only called the Ask Sam line when we told her if she just keeps asking questions in the break room we’re not going to be able to create any content for the website) it’s because your adorable wheaten terrier is in fact descended from a timber wolf*.

For wolves and wild dogs, whose noses are simply astonishing, taking a poop is similar to leaving a trail of information behind:

 

“Who’s been there, when they’ve been there, what’s their reproductive status, what they’ve been eating, etc,” explains Dr. Brian Hare, who heads Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, and is the founder of Dognition.

“As people say often, it’s like a dog’s reading the newspaper to smell what others have left. They are creating content, and so just like you as a media person, you want to put your product your content in a place where people will see it. The reason that dogs for instance want to defecate or urinate on things that are high is because that’s going to be easier for someone else’s sniffer to run into.” 

Dogs, with their leavings, are attempting to create an “olfactory bowl” (a fancy science-y term for their territory), and it would totally defeat the purpose of all that effort if they pooped somewhere hidden and a dog passing into their territory just walked right by.

Other insights?

  • Dogs that learn on a single type of surface are weirded out about using something that they are not used to. These preferences tend to be set by about four-and-a-half-months-old.

  • Sometimes pooping is simply not your dog’s priority, and distractions -- especially the presence of other dogs -- can be an issue.

  • Dogs are sensitive to magnetism, and when the magnetosphere is calm (about 20% of the time) they like to orient themselves North/South. “Why they would do that?” Brian Hare says, “Nobody knows.”

So you can take the dog out of the taiga, but you can’t take the taiga out of the dog. Just a little something to appreciate every time [insert your pup's name here] refuses to just let you go back inside.

 

* this statement may not be 100% science.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, Logan Shannon, and Megan Tan.

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Uncanny Valleys. 

Episode 12: Ask Sam | Syrup-titious

Whether he likes it or not, Sam has become the go-to source for all of our questions, from showing him photos of weird bugs we want him to identify, to why asparagus makes your pee smell funky, to what psi our bike tires should be. And we're not alone - everyone has questions for Sam. 

If you have a question for Sam, leave him a message on the Ask Sam hotline: 603-223-2448

Mike from Poughkeepsie asks:

“During an episode of the West Wing President Bartlett gets upset when he finds out that at leadership breakfasts they’ll be serving Vermont Maple Syrup versus New Hampshire Maple Syrup. That got me thinking, can you tell the difference between maple syrups made in different places? Local pride in quality aside, is there a way to distinguish New Hampshire maple syrup from Vermont maple syrup or Canadian maple syrup?”

 


Well for starters, I have an “Ask Everybody Elsequestion: What’s with The West Wing? Why are we still talking about The West Wing

(Disclaimer: I have not watched The West Wing. I await your outraged emails.)

(Producers note: Sam? Really? REALLY!?! *sigh*)

Now, syrup. Great Question. For starters, it’s frankly no surprise that Mr. Bartlett’s team wound up serving Vermont Maple Syrup, because most American-made syrup is from the Green Mountain state.

That said, I’m wildly and unrelentingly skeptical that anyone would be able to distinguish the state that a given batch of maple syrup came from by taste alone. And I’m not alone.

“All maple syrups produced at different sugar orchards are going to taste a little bit different,” said Jim Fadden, President of the New Hampshire maple producers association, whose family has collected sap in New Hampshire for seven generations.

But can those differences tip off a taster as to the state of origin? “In my experience the maple trees don’t recognize the borders.” Fadden doesn’t buy it.

While there are other flavor notes in syrup that you can tell between two syrups, the differences are very slight. Two syrups from two sugar shacks are dramatically more similar than two IPAs from two different brewers. As to what causes these different flavors? Bacteria, the same thing that makes your toast toast and not just hot bread, and amino acids. Do we understand how those all interact? Answers range from *shrug* to meh.

Googling around, you can find some articles stating that Vermont has a requirement that Maple Syrup have a slightly higher sugar content than other state, but when you check the rules, both states have the exactly same threshold for syrup these days -- 66.9 percent -- so while I’m not sure if that was ever true, it doesn’t seem to be anymore.

But to be really sure, we at Outside/In asked Twitter for a champion: someone bold enough to believe they could do the impossible and determine the state of origin of four maple syrups by taste alone. Twitter brought us Lucas Meyer, who against all sense or reason successfully guessed all four syrups (you should listen, it was absurd.)

I was baffled, so I threw this one back at Mike from Poughkeepsie, who -- it turns out -- is a math professor. He informed us that the odds of randomly guessing all four correctly is about 1 in 24. A good guess to be sure, but far short of winning the Powerball.

So is this possible? I remain skeptical. To really answer this question I propose that we need to recruit a sample of supertasters, let them train for a year -- tasting maple syrups from different sugar orchards and taking scrupulous notes -- and then have another blind taste-test with a statistically significant number of samples.

Hear that NSF? Consider this my official grant proposal.


Rebecca from…a few desks over...asks:

“Why does it take my dog so long to figure out exactly where it is that he wants to go to the bathroom? Number one, number two... it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of pickiness going on. On-leash, off-leash, on walks on the road, running free… it doesn’t matter. Location seems to be incredibly important and I want to know why?”


Well Rebecca, (who is, full-disclosure, our digital director here at NHPR, and only called the Ask Sam line when I told her if she just keeps asking questions in the break room we’re not going to be able to create any content for the website) it’s because your adorable wheaten terrier is in fact descended from a timber wolf*.

For wolves and wild dogs, whose noses are simply astonishing, taking a poop is similar to leaving a trail of information behind:

“Who’s been there, when they’ve been there, what’s their reproductive status, what they’ve been eating, etc,” explains Dr. Brian Hare, who heads Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, and is the founder of Dognition.

“As people say often, it’s like a dog’s reading the newspaper to smell what others have left. They are creating content, and so just like you as a media person, you want to put your product your content in a place where people will see it. The reason that dogs for instance want to defecate or urinate on things that are high is because that’s going to be easier for someone else’s sniffer to run into.” 

Dogs, with their leavings, are attempting to create an “olfactory bowl” (a fancy science-y term for their territory), and it would totally defeat the purpose of all that effort if they pooped somewhere hidden and a dog passing into their territory just walked right by.

Other insights?

  • Dogs that learn on a single type of surface are weirded out about using something that they are not used to. These preferences tend to be set by about four-and-a-half-months-old.

  • Sometimes pooping is simply not your dog’s priority, and distractions -- especially the presence of other dogs -- can be an issue.

  • Dogs are sensitive to magnetism, and when the magnetosphere is calm (about 20% of the time) they like to orient themselves North/South. “Why they would do that?” Brian Hare says, “Nobody knows.”

So you can take the dog out of the taiga, but you can’t take the taiga out of the dog. Just a little something to appreciate every time [insert your pup's name here] refuses to just let you go back inside.

 

* this statement may not be 100% science.

Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, & Logan Shannon

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder | Additional music by Uncanny Valleys

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.