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.

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.

Episode 31: Ask Sam | Snow Fleas, Wind, Mount Mitchell

Every so often, we take some time out from telling stories to answer questions from you, our friends and listeners. These questions have been piling up, and so we thought we’d dig through them and bring you some of the more interesting ones.

If you want us to answer your question, you should give us a call! The number is 603-223-2448. If you’re technologically inclined, record your question on a voice-memo and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org.

Enough preamble, the the questions!

Question 1. Eric: I’m standing in the middle of Blue Job State Forest in Strafford, and it just snowed, and there are all these tiny little black bugs crawling around the snow. They look like snow fleas? I don’t know what they are. But there’s probably, oh there’s got to be billions of them, because they’re everywhere. And I was just wondering, what are they and where on earth did they come from?

A local caller! If you’re an out-of-state listener, Blue Job is a a little knob with very nice views in southeastern New Hampshire, but this particular type of tiny beasty is found all over the globe. Snow fleas are a type of springtail (cue link to a Wikipedia page!) which are one of the most abundant types of creatures on earth. They are literally everywhere there is dirt.

If you cast your memory back to our episode about all of the hidden biodiversity in a routine traffic circle, you might remember that we talked about microarthropods — which is science speak for itsy-bitsy bugs — as being the largest critter in the soil food web. Springtails are one of the creatures we were talking about. The munching that they do is one of the mechanisms that serves to decompose organic matter that falls onto the ground. Up here in New England, we call them snow fleas (and not dirt fleas) because, even though they live in the dirt, we only tend to notice them when they come out onto the snow, thanks to the contrast between their tiny black bodies and the white surface.

There’s an incredible variety in the number of species of springtails, and much we don’t know about the lifecycles of all the individual species, but there is a lot of interest in them because of their ability to survive and even be active in extremely cold temperatures.

One additional fun-fact. Springtails are useful to folks who care for insects in cages, like Gwen Pearson who manages Purdue Universities Insect Zoo. Because springtails eat mold and fungus spores, they can be used to keep the sultry enclosures of tropical creatures free of gunk. In fact, you can buy them in bulk on Amazon for just this purpose.

Question 2, Aubrey: I wanted to ask Sam about wind, because anecdotally I feel like there’s a lot more wind recently, than there was in the past. I’m just wondering if there’s any correlation between increased wind events and our global warming situation. It seems like intuitively, if there’s more energy in the atmosphere, there should be more wind, but maybe I’m just imagining it.

Full disclosure, Aubrey is my lovely wife (and as I often joke — as a powerhouse middle school science teacher —  the source of all of my knowledge). We have talked about this question for a long time, and she finally got fed up with me stalling and called it into the hotline so that I’d be forced to answer it.

There’s also a fairly easy answer, Ian Young of the University of Melbourne has been working on the surprisingly tricky task of teasing out global trends in wind speed. As you might imagine, its a big world and there are a lot of places that wind isn’t getting measured second-by-second, and satellite wind data can be a little noisy. But despite the challenges, he has an estimate, largely derived from wind speeds over the oceans.

“What our observations show is that for an area like the northeast coast of the United States we’ve seen wind-speeds increase, on average, by about seven percent,” Young told me when we managed to connect over the phone (at 11 PM his time, and 7 AM ours).

The tricky business for professor Young has been determining whether that increase is due to a general increase in background windiness, or a rise in the power of extreme wind events… stronger storms. He says they aren’t yet sure, but he leans towards stronger storms.

This discussion also yielded a fascinating revelation from executive producer Maureen McMurray: she hates wind chimes, and equates hanging up a wind chime within ear-shot of your neighbors to blasting Steely Dan’s Black Cow from your back porch all-day, every-day.

PSA: Take in your wind-chimes, people.

Question 3. Alex: I was just in North Carolina and went up to Mount Mitchell, which had a sign very proudly proclaiming it to be the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but we all know that’s false because the highest peak east of the Mississippi is Barbeau Peak, up on Ellesmere Island. So, I’m wondering how the state parks system can get away with such a catastrophic lie to the public?

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Wow, Alex. Tell us how you really feel? He is correct, ladies and gentlemen, anyone with access to a search engine can indeed discover for themselves that Barbeau Peak is taller than Mount Mitchell. (Although it looks somehow… sadder.)

This is clearly a question of semantics. I think we can all agree that since if you go far enough east you’ll eventually circumnavigate the entire globe and find yourself back at Mount Mitchell, this sign is missing some sort of important qualifier. Is it the highest peak east of the Mississippi in America? In North America? WEST OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN?! MY GOD WHICH IS IT?

Leaving aside how exactly this “lie” is “catastrophic,” we at Outside/In do believe that accuracy is paramount. As such, in collaboration with Alex, we have come up with a proposed solution. If any listener happens to hike Mount Mitchell in the near future, try to figure out a way to make the sign more accurate. Using a method that does not deface the sign, please! Add a note using a sticky note, perhaps. Or stand in front of the sign without your own hand-fashioned placard which adds an appropriate geographical caveat afterward.

Once you’re done, send us a picture, and maybe the internet will make it go all viral. (Ok, I confess, I probably don’t know how viral things on the internet work.)

Question 4. Maureen: In the last few weeks we have had very cold weather and then a warm up and then it gets cold again.  As the snow has melted and I’ve been out walking, I’ve noticed what looks like rocks that have sunk into the ground.  My guess is that the rocks stay colder and heavier longer and the soil warms and expands, or loosens and the cold heavy rock sinks, then the ground refreezes over it.  Can you explain this phenomenon?

This one came in over email. And you know what that means: exclusive web only content!

I’ve been observing this phenomenon in my own back yard, Maureen, and what you’re witnessing (or at least what I’m witnessing and assuming is the same at your house) is the formation and later melting away of needle ice.

Basically, what happens is that when the soil is above freezing but the air is above freezing, moisture in the soil is drawn towards the surface (through capillary action, the same process that plants use to send water from the roots to the leaves) and as it rises it freezes in a column. As it rises it brings the mud or sand around it up as well. If the ice then melts (as it has done numerous times this winter in New England… *sigh*), you’re left with disturbed, aerated, slightly taller soil. So what you’re actually seeing is the dirt around the rocks rising up, not the rocks sinking down. Oh, those tricksy rocks!

Indeed, any gardener from New Hampshire will tell you that far from sinking because of their density, rocks in New England soil have a tendency to “heave” their way towards the surface as they undergo freeze-thaw cycles. This occurs for the same reason that you always find all the brazil nuts at the top of a can of mixed nuts.

As a fun bonus, needle ice can also be incredibly beautiful, if you’re willing to get down on your belly and look.

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

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder


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.