July 20, 2023

Three Things Thursday: Google Searches

Do you ever get curious about something and then brush it off because you completely forget that we have the internet at our fingertips and we can get the answer in moments? No? For some reason, that happens to me frequently.

For Three Things Thursday, I am writing out things I'd wondered for a moment and then just forgot about. I never thought to google them simply because it didn't occur to me! I just assumed that the way I was taught while growing up was just the way it was. Once in a while, a curious question pops into my head, "I wonder...".

And then one day, I laughed and realized that the answers have been at my fingertips the whole time! Just a quick google search can tell me pretty much anything I want to know. So, here are a few random questions I had and the answers I learned...

1. Where do squirrels go when they die?

Yes, this sounds morbid, but considering I think of my backyard squirrels as "pets", it got me wondering one day. I frequently see squirrels that have been hit by cars (poor little buddies!) so their cause of death is obvious. But how often do you see a (neighborhood) squirrel that died of natural causes? I don't know that I ever have! (Note: Here, I am referring to fox squirrels, which is what we have in our neighborhood. They are the most common squirrel in southeast Michigan.)

This is one of my little buddies

Here is what I learned: The answer is much sadder than I thought. The truth is that most squirrels don't live long enough to die of old age (or even reach full adulthood). They are usually killed by cars or by predators (hawks, cats, foxes, owls, raccoons, coyotes, dogs, hunters, harsh winters, etc.). Unfortunately, we have all of those predators living in the marshland across the street from my house, and our winters can get VERY harsh.

Something else that shocked me was that only 15-25% of squirrels will survive their first year. After the first year, there is a 50-75% survival rate (the average lifespan is about 3-4 years, although ones in captivity can live 4-5 times that long). Only 1% will live longer than five years! Right now, there are four "babies" that were born this spring (they are a few months old now) and it's so sad to think that the odds are that only one of them will survive the year.

I never knew a squirrel's life expectancy (another thing I didn't think to google!) and what I learned explains why my family usually sees the same squirrels for about 3-4 years and one day, we realize we haven't seen them for a while. (We used to name each of them, but now I just call most of them "Buddy", haha. I got very attached to some of them and it was really hard on me when they stopped coming around.)

In the spring, we see the babies who are just learning to run around on the trees; they are SUPER skittish (and adorable), but they like to watch the older squirrels come up on my deck and get walnuts. Usually, the following year, they tentatively make their way closer--and by fall, they may get close enough to take a walnut from our hands.

(I leave raw, unsalted, in-shell peanuts outside at all times; the walnuts, because they are expensive, get handed to them.) They love walnuts! And I love seeing the squirrels get plump before Michigan winter :) I also give them fruit in the summer because it's a good source of water for them. 

For the short answer to the question about the lucky squirrels that live long enough to die of old age, well--they usually go to their nests in their little hidey-holes and die there. That's why we don't see them lying around. But most of the time, they are taken (alive or dead) by predators (or hit by cars).

(Sources: DNR; Michigan DNRU of M Museum of Zoology)
(Note: There were discrepancies between several sites--not major ones, but the numbers weren't exactly the same. I tried to use the most common numbers or the rough average.)

2. When you flush the toilet, where does the waste go?

This sounds so simple and it's something I've always just thought, "It goes in the sewer." But that's what I learned as a kid! I realized one day that I actually had no idea where waste travels once you flush the toilet (or even what a sewer actually was). You flush the toilet and then it leaves your mind and you don't think about it after that. So where does it go?

The google answer on this wasn't very helpful at first, so I had to do some more digging. Most of the sites just give the basic answer, "It goes into the sewage system." But I wanted to know WHERE that is--obviously we have sewage pipes under the house, but how does it get from there to the treatment plant?

So here are the basics of what I read (Note: I only read about sewage systems that I'm familiar with using; we have city water/plumbing. Also, I'm regarding rain and storm water as separate systems; this is strictly regarding sewage systems that run from where you flush your toilet. There are different types of systems depending on where you live, but I didn't want to get into all of that and make it way too complicated. So, basically, if you were to flush the toilet at my house, this is what happens:

From the toilet (or the waste from the dishwasher, sinks, etc.), the waste goes from the drain into a pipe under the house (all of the waste pipes in the house merge to that one main pipe) via gravity. This pipe, as well as those main pipes from the houses/buildings around it--the number of houses that share the system varies) all merge into another pipe. It's called the public sewer mainline, which is under the ground. Again, using gravity, the waste from the public sewer mainline travels to a pump station.

Since gravity can only take it so far (you can't just keep going down down down) the pump station is a storage and collection chamber that forces the waste water to a higher elevation. From there, the waste can then travel via pipes (again by gravity) to the waste water treatment plant. (I won't continue from here, but the water is then processed at the treatment plant.)

So, every time we flush the toilet, that waste has a pretty long journey! (I'm so impressed by some inventions that we never really think about--a plumbing system is kind of amazing when you think about it.) (Source: Wastewater Reclamation Authority)

3. Where does fat go when you "burn" it to lose weight?

This one was MUCH simpler than the others, when you don't dig into the chemistry of it. I really just wanted to know how fat is expelled from your body when you burn it. If you lose, say, two pounds--where did that go, and how?

So here is the gist in a nutshell: When we take in less energy than the body needs (reduce calories consumed), the body turns to stored fat cells to make up for that energy. When your body metabolizes this fat (meaning it breaks the fat down in order to use it for energy), the fatty acid molecules travel via your bloodstream to the heart, lungs, and muscles (they need that energy to keep working). These organs break down the molecules and use the stored energy to keep your body functioning. But where does the FAT go?

There are byproducts of that process I described above, which are excreted in the form of water: carbon dioxide as you exhale; sweat; and pee. Mostly, however, it comes from carbon dioxide from simply breathing. Your lungs are the primary source of expelling fat... who knew?! (sources: MIT Technology Review, How Stuff Works). Kind of makes me want to head out for a run ;)


  1. I am a licensed professional engineer and I specialize in water resources management (stormwater mostly, but a fair bit of wastewater too). The topography of the community and the size of the system depends on how many pump stations are required. We minimize them if at all possible as they are the biggest headache of maintenance of the system. Also FYI, because of the pumps - be very careful what you flush or put down your drains. Fat congeals when it is in the cooler temps of the ground and line the pipes and built up and can clog. They float in little balls in the pump station wet wells. Flushable wipes are the absolutely WORST things on the pumps (everyone in the industry HATES them). At the treatment plant, the influent is first screened to get as much of the non biodegradble stuff out, then it usually goes into some kind of settling process which is often injected with air to increase the microbiological breakdown of the waste (tiny bugs eat your poop), then the mostly clean water is decanted off the top and disinfected (either chemically usually chlorine or by UV light) before released to the environment with strict limits as to the levels of any residual chemicals/contaminants/nutrients. The leftover sludge is typically incinerated or land applied at agronomic rates (ie. used as fertilizer on fields). Sometimes that is done after it is dried. Other times it is mixed with effluent water and sprayed on the fields. Fun fact: the wastewater operators always know when tomatoes are ripe in the area - the seeds aren't digested and little tomato plants will pop up in the sludge (=solids that are leftover after treatment). And you are right that MOST wastewater systems are separate from storm drainage systems. So never dump anything down a storm drain - it is not a trash can! Only rain down the storm drain. Apologies for the nerd moment above. :)

    1. That is super interesting! If I'd have known you specialized in this, I totally would have asked you to answer the question. It took me a while to truly understand it, and I only have the basic concept! Thanks for weighing in.


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