Naturalist

Naturalist

The Kingsnake and My Old Man

Learning to appreciate the unappreciated

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

For years, my father lived by the creed “The only good snake is a dead snake.” Any snake encountered, no matter the species, was dispatched as quickly as possible, usually with a deft stroke of a shovel to the back of the head. Dad’s fear of snakes was taught to him by his dad, who learned it from his dad, who learned it from his dad.

Ophidiophobia is a common affliction. Chances are, most readers of this magazine suffer from some form of it. Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, snakes have received a bad rap. Like taxes and politicians, most people despise them.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. For Dad, that exception was the eastern kingsnake. If the boldly patterned black and white snake was encountered in the yard, Dad let it slide. No shovels to the back of the head for this serpent. Eastern kingsnakes are powerful constrictors that readily eat other snakes, including venomous ones — a fact that had not escaped my dad, despite his serpentine prejudices.

When I came along, I broke the family mold. As a kid, I never feared any snake. Instead, I found the cold-blooded serpents immensely fascinating. If I encountered one in the woods, I did not rush to grab a stick to bash it to pieces. Instead, I marveled at the way it slithered across the ground, admiring how it navigated the landscape without the benefit of legs.

I devoured every snake book I could find in the library at West End Elementary School. I soon learned that North Carolina was blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with 39 different species of snakes, only six of which are venomous.

Each year, when the “Snake Man,” a touring natural history educator, came around to our school, I was the first to volunteer to help hold Penelope, his pet 16-foot Burmese python. I still recall with vivid clarity how it took over a dozen students to lift the immense snake out of her wooden holding box.

Then there was the time my sixth-grade science teacher, Larry Dull, captured a hognose snake on the school’s playground out by the monkey bars. Frequently called “spreading adders” by locals, for their habit of flattening their heads “cobra style” when threatened, hognose snakes are often believed, incorrectly, to be venomous — a myth that Mr. Dull dispelled by holding the wild snake with his bare hands in front of our class. The hognose remained absolutely still, occasionally flicking its tongue in and out of its mouth, making no attempt to bite. While Mr. Dull addressed our class, I hung on his every word and laughed out loud when the snake suddenly pooped on his shirt.

As my knowledge and love for North Carolina snakes grew, the eastern kingsnake quickly became a favorite. What’s not to like? The handsome black serpent has a bold pattern of white, chainlike markings that encircle its body at wide intervals from head to tail. Capable of reaching lengths of over 6 feet of pure muscle, the eastern kingsnake is North Carolina’s strongest native snake. It’s a constrictor that suffocates its prey with powerful coils from its body.

Not only are kingsnakes big and strong, they possess the superhero-like trait of being immune to snake venom. For copperheads and rattlesnakes, an eastern kingsnake is the ultimate danger noodle.

The reason Dad refuses to kill kingsnakes stems from an incident that happened during his childhood. While fishing for bluegills in an Eagle Springs farm pond, he stumbled upon a kingsnake constricting a cottonmouth along the shoreline. Despite having the cottonmouth’s fangs embedded deep in its back, the kingsnake slowly squeezed the life out of the venomous serpent, then proceeded to swallow it whole, right in front of my wide-eyed father. It left an impression.

Despite witnessing this rare behavior, Dad still grew up fearing snakes. It was not until my college days that his fear began to wane. At that time, I had a pet snake named Herman. Herman was an eastern kingsnake that traveled with me from Chapel Hill back home over the holidays. One memorable Christmas, I pulled Herman out of his aquarium in the living room, but Dad steadfastly refused to hold him, despite the snake’s obvious calm demeanor. Mom chose to remain in another room for my impromptu Crocodile Hunter performance.

After graduation, when work took me away for months at a time, Dad reluctantly agreed to snake sit for me. Fortunately, Herman was a low-maintenance pet. Dad simply had to clean his aquarium once a week and feed him the occasional frozen mouse. Still, Dad never once picked up Herman. Old habits die hard.

It was not until years later, when I took Dad on a wildlife viewing adventure through the Albemarle Peninsula, that he actually picked up a snake with his bare hands for the first time. On a humid day early in the trip, we encountered a large kingsnake crawling across a wide dirt road bordered by forest and cornfields. I hopped out of the car and immediately picked up the shiny black serpent. True to form, the snake made no effort to bite. Instead, it wrapped its elongated body around my wrist. Its iridescent scales shimmered in the late afternoon light.

Imagine my surprise when I asked Dad if he would like to hold it and he said, “Yes.” Not wanting the moment to pass, I quickly handed the snake over to him. Despite being obviously nervous — beads of sweat were forming on his forehead — both Dad and the snake remained calm. Slowly touching its scales, Dad’s expression changed from trepidation to joy. In that moment, he lost his fear of snakes.

It’s been many years since I have seen a kingsnake around Eagle Springs. Of the few snakes that still occasionally turn up in the yard, I am happy to report that Dad no longer kills them. He simply leaves them alone.

Mom recently texted me a photo of Dad helping out a family friend by capturing a large rat snake in their front yard and releasing it unharmed into a nearby patch of woods.

Looking at that picture, I can’t help but smile.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

Naturalist

Spring in the Pines

A place where wonders abound

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

A longleaf pine forest on a warm spring day is a magical place.

Bright sunlight dances across clumps of wiregrass, setting the forest floor ablaze with golden hues. The sweet, trilling whistles of a Bachman’s sparrow carry across warm southerly breezes heavy with the scent of pine. Red-cockaded woodpeckers flit from tree to tree, searching for grubs. The loud, harsh “keeer-r-r-r” of a soaring red-tailed hawk echoes from high above.

Wildflowers bloom. Dwarf iris, cloaked in petals of vivid yellow and violet blue, provide wonder to those that look carefully. Patches of sandhill lupine, replete with hairy leaves and pale blue flowers, attract bees and rare butterflies. Pineland phlox add a splash of pink to soil blackened by a recent fire.

On sloping hills of sand, underlain with moisture-retaining clay soil, yellow pitcher plants stretch up toward a Carolina blue sky. Looking like something straight out of a James Cameron movie, pitcher plants are the most spectacular floral wonders of the Sandhills. Standing 4 feet tall, their modified trumpet-shaped leaves hint at an extraordinary lifestyle. The pitchers are carnivores. Releasing a scent of sweet-smelling nectar, a pitcher plant lures insects from near and far to its cavernous maw. As insects crawl down the pitcher’s funnel, fine hairs trap them inside. The insects eventually fall into a pool of rainwater that has accumulated deep inside. There, digestive enzymes slowly break the insects down, providing life-sustaining nutrients to the pitcher plant.

At the base of a longleaf pine, a fox squirrel, the size of a house cat, stands at attention — its white paws and ears contrasting sharply with a fur coat the color of midnight. When it comes to ripping open green longleaf pine cones to reach the nutrient-rich seeds inside, size matters. As the largest tree squirrel in North America, fox squirrels are the only ones capable of that feat.

Left: Longleaf Scenic Sandhills Gamelands

Middle: Pine Barrens Treefrog at Sunset

Right: Dwarf Iris

 

Next to a fallen tree, beneath a clump of wiregrass, a northern pine snake lies quietly coiled. As beautiful as it is rare, the powerful, non-venomous constrictor is among the state’s largest snakes. Feeding on abundant small mammals, the black and white serpent spends as much time underground as it does above.

Among the rolling hills of sand, a patchwork of shallow, blackwater streams meanders across the landscape. Beneath water stained the color of strong tea, unique and endemic fish swim. Colorful pinewoods darters, just 3 inches long, hunt the shallows for aquatic insect larvae. A male sandhills chub excavates a nest in the sandy substrate in hopes of enticing a female to deposit her eggs. Where currents have deposited piles of leaves along the bottom, Sandhills spiny crayfish lurk.

As dusk approaches, in dense tangles of vegetation bordering the streams, the calls of pine barrens tree frogs resonate. Red bats take to the air to hunt moths while the incessant calls of a chuck-will’s-widow echo through the pines.

Indeed, a longleaf pine forest is a repository of biodiversity. Unfortunately, intact, healthy longleaf pine forests are just as rare as many of the animals that call them home.

At the time of European colonization of the North American continent, majestic longleaf pine forests stretched nearly unbroken from Norfolk, Virginia, to Florida and all along the Gulf Coast to East Texas — an estimated 90 million acres in total. Today, less than 3 percent remains, most of which are just scattered trees. The vast forests have been converted to agricultural fields, housing developments and strip malls. The longleaf pine forest is among the continent’s most threatened ecosystems.

Left: Lupine and Sunburst

Middle: Yellow Pitcher Plants

Right: Fox Squirrel

 

Fortunately, in the North Carolina Sandhills, there still are a few places where it is possible to see a healthy, functioning longleaf pine forest. Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve, as well as the nearby Calloway Forest Preserve, provide opportunities to explore and hike among mature longleaf. The entirety of the world’s largest military base, Fort Liberty, is longleaf pine forest — as is the 63,000-acre Sandhills Gamelands, managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. These tracts of land are precious, and should be enjoyed and celebrated at every opportunity.

To step into a healthy longleaf pine forest on a warm spring day is like stepping back in time, where nature is alive and thriving, unencumbered by the excesses of humanity.

Birds sing. Flowers bloom. A warm wind blows. And fox squirrels play.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

Naturalist

Tale of the Whitetail

The adaptable deer among us

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

This past November, on a bright, sunny morning, I made a drive from Eagle Springs up to Raleigh. Just a quarter-mile into the journey, I spied a young doe lying motionless on her side, just off the shoulder of the road, a victim of a collision with an automobile from the previous night. “That’s a pity,” I said to myself, not giving it much more thought. Roadkill is an all-too-common sight these days.

Turning onto N.C. 211, I spotted another deer, this time a small buck, crumpled into a lifeless heap, its head lying just a few yards off the edge of the pavement, it too the victim of a car strike. A pair of black vultures stood nearby, cautiously eyeing a prospective meal.

Fifteen miles down the road, this time along U.S. 15-501 just north of Carthage, I spied yet another road-killed deer. Then another. Along U.S. 1, between Sanford and Cary, I counted four more. Later, driving back to Eagle Springs in the early evening, I counted another three, bringing the total to 11 dead deer for the day, all victims of hit and runs.

November is the peak of the white-tailed deer breeding season in this part of the state, and the large ungulates are on the move during most hours of the day, especially so once the sun goes down. Still, the volume of carnage seemed unusually high.

It was not that many years ago when seeing a white-tailed deer anywhere in the Sandhills was a rare treat. In fact, the only time I recall seeing any deer as a kid was when my parents made their annual holiday shopping trip to Cross Creek Mall in Fayetteville. Our route took us through the rural backroads of what is now Fort Liberty. From the back seat, I would strain my eyes looking up ahead, into the darkness, for the distinctive eyeshine of deer reflected in the high beams of our old Toyota Corolla. It was practically a given to find one or two standing along the shoulder of the road eating grass at some point during the drive, right in the heart of the military installation.

While deer were certainly around my hometown of Eagle Springs throughout the 1970s and ’80s, they were elusive and rarely seen by anyone other than hunters. Those roaming about the landscape tended to favor denser patches of forests bordering creeks and farm fields.

As a preteen, I recall being enthralled with the taxidermy mount of a large 8-point buck taken by a family friend during the fall hunting season along Drowning Creek, not far from our house, its large, symmetrical antlers appearing much too big for its head.

It was not until my college days of the early 1990s that I really began to notice a significant increase in the number of deer, not just in the Sandhills but throughout the state. During the occasional weekend drive from Chapel Hill to Eagle Springs for a home-cooked meal, I regularly saw deer dash across the road, day and night, especially along the edge of Jordan Lake.

Today, white-tailed deer are ubiquitous, roaming across North Carolina from the Outer Banks to our westernmost mountains, in numbers exceeding those seen by this country’s first European colonists.

Not long after my Raleigh outing, I ventured out under a bright moon, to drive the 4 miles of road bordering my childhood home. This stretch of asphalt traverses a series of large open fields, patches of longleaf pine forest, and the occasional manicured yard.

Rolling down the window to savor the unseasonably mild air, I set about the task of trying to accomplish my goal for the evening, which was to simply count the number of deer I could see in the 15 minutes it took to slowly drive the road. With no other cars out, I could easily stop and scan the fields and forests with my new thermal imaging scope. This high-tech piece of kit is able to detect the heat emitted by warm-blooded animals, allowing me to see in the dark.

Pulling up to my first stop, I raised the scope to my eye and turned it on. Instantly, I could see a large herd of deer grazing about 100 yards away, their distinctive bodies glowing like living Christmas tree lights scattered about the field. A quick count produced 18 deer. A quarter-mile down the road, I counted another eight. Then five more. By the time my informal survey was over, I had tallied a remarkable 53 deer, likely exceeding the total number of deer I had seen throughout the entirety of my childhood.

With the number of dead deer that litter our highways today, or that rummage through backyard gardens and local fairways, it might be hard to imagine that just a century ago, whitetails were wiped out of many areas of the East Coast (North Carolina included) by uncontrolled hunting. That they have bounced back in such a relatively short period of time is remarkable. The reasons for this are complicated and well beyond the scope of this short column. Suffice to say, white-tailed deer are among the few species that have readily adapted to a human-dominated landscape and are viewed by many as beacons of the American wilderness and by others as long-legged nuisances.

Pulling back into the driveway, I hop out of my car and start walking to the front door. A rustling of leaves in the turkey oaks bordering the yard catches my attention. Raising the thermal scope up to my eye, I see a doe bounding off into the forest in a series of high arching leaps, tail held high.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

Naturalist

How Now Sea Cow

Heeding the ocean’s call

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Some songs just resonate. With his recent passing, Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” has played on a near continuous loop on my radio. A perennial favorite, its opening refrain strikes a particular chord:

Mother, mother ocean, I’ve heard you call. 

Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. 

You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

As a kid, the ocean’s call was powerful. Fed on weekly doses of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I could not wait to strike out on my own and explore the horizon line far beyond land-locked Eagle Springs. And now, like the middle-aged mariner in Buffett’s song, the feeling of being born in the wrong century and unable to fit into the modern world creeps into the recesses of my mind from time to time. The second verse continues:

Watched the men who rode you, switch from sail to steam. 

And in your belly, you hold the treasures few have ever seen. 

Most of ’em dreams. Most of ’em dreams.

I frequently find myself daydreaming about those early Victorian-aged explorers who set off on years-long voyages across the globe, imagining their thrill in discovering new lands and encountering unknown animals for the first time. The closest I have come to that enchantment, happened while attending the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where a scuba diving class taken as an elective during my sophomore year introduced me to one of nature’s true marvels. To finalize our certification, we had to make a checkout dive in open waters beyond the gymnasium swimming pool. Over Thanksgiving break that year, the class journeyed down to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, along the west coast of Florida, where warm, gin-clear freshwater springs provided the perfect environment to complete the scuba training.

During our first dive, while kneeling on the sandy bottom 20 feet below the water’s surface, a large shadow passed over my head. Glancing up, I saw a wild Florida manatee swimming slowly by. Awestruck, in that moment I felt the same wonder those early naturalists likely experienced when encountering such a large animal for the first time.

It was actually Christopher Columbus who first wrote about the manatees of the New World, in his famed journal from 1492. Having encountered three manatees off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, he called them “mermaids.”

For the uninitiated, a Florida manatee is a sofa-sized marine mammal that possesses a broad, paddle-shaped tail, two small flippers and a whiskered face reminiscent of a walrus, minus the tusks. True herbivores, with a propensity for dining on vast quantities of seagrass, manatees are often referred to as “sea cows.” 

How Columbus mistook such creatures for the voluptuous sirens of myth and legend is unknown. Granted, he had just spent six long, lonely months at sea, sailing across the Atlantic. Columbus later commented in his journal, more prudently, that “they were not as beautiful as they are painted.”

For such large animals, manatees are quite curious and disarmingly docile. Swimmers and snorkelers from all over the world flock to Crystal River, the only place in the United States it is legal to enter the water with these endangered mammals.

Incidentally, among the staunchest advocates for manatees over the last four decades was none other than that tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett. In 1981, Buffett joined forces with then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham to form the Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit organization that continues to this day to campaign for manatee conservation.

Appearing in numerous public service campaigns, Buffett used his immense celebrity to raise awareness for the plight of manatees. He donated money to erect signs throughout Florida waterways warning speeding boaters about the docile mammals; and he was the brains behind the Adopt-A-Manatee Program, an ingenious initiative that engages and inspires the public and has raised millions since its inception in 1984. The adoption model has been so successful that it has been used by numerous conservation groups around the world to raise funds for the protection of other endangered species; everything from whales to gorillas have benefited from Buffett’s genius.

Just this past winter, when a powerful cold front swept out of the Arctic Circle down to the Gulf of Mexico, I visited a waterway next to a nuclear power plant along the shore of Tampa Bay. Despite their large size, manatees lack an insulating blubber layer like that found in whales. As such, the half-ton mammals are particularly vulnerable to cold water temperatures and can quickly suffer from hypothermia.

Hundreds of manatees had crowded into the small canal, where warm water was being discharged by the power plant. Just as many tourists were packed onto a long wooden boardwalk overlooking the canal, gawking at the gentle giants resting in the murky green water. A young boy standing nearby looked up at his father with excited wide eyes and shouted, “Look at all of them!” Followed quickly by, “Wow. Just wow!”

Once again, the ocean’s call was ringing loud and clear.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

Naturalist

The Gateway Bug

A spectacular insect can lead to a lifetime of wonder

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

The memory has stayed with me for decades. It was a humid summer night in the early 1980s, and we had just finished a dinner of grilled hot dogs in the backyard of our Eagle Springs home. Cacophonous calls of whip-poor-wills echoed through the pines while billions of stars lit up the night sky. Wanting to cool off from the oppressive heat, which was still prevalent late into the evening, I decided to take a dip in the backyard pool. As I flipped on a mercury vapor bulb mounted to a tall pole, the entire backyard was instantly flooded in brilliant light.

As I climbed up onto the diving board, it came streaking in from the corner of the yard like a shooting star. Swooping low over the pool, it suddenly arched high, crashed into the light with an audible thud, and tumbled down to the concrete, where it came to rest on its back, legs waving feebly back and forth in the air. “What is that thing?” I wondered aloud.

Jumping off the diving board, I walked over and carefully flipped the hefty 2-inch-long insect over onto its belly. It had a yellowish-green body covered in black spots. A pair of long horns extended out from its head, giving it the appearance of a miniature rhinoceros. At the time, it was among the largest insects that I had ever seen. I would hate to be driving down a rural road at night in a convertible and get walloped upside the head by one.

I picked the insect up and placed it into a mason jar. The next day I proudly showed it to my parents, who, for some strange reason, were not nearly as thrilled as I was with the monster invertebrate. Soon afterward, it was released into the woods behind our house. While thumbing through the pages of a field guide at the school library, I later learned that it was an Eastern Hercules beetle that had interrupted my nocturnal swim.

Most people fear bugs. Many loathe them. Insects found in homes are immediately squashed under foot or dispatched with a well-aimed can of Raid.

All this fear and loathing is learned behavior, taught to us as children. Granted, some insects should be treated with caution, like yellowjackets, capable of delivering a painful sting, or mosquitoes that can harbor disease. But even these maligned critters play critical ecological roles. As hard as it may be to imagine, their extinction would have profound effects on the overall health of the planet and our own well-being. 

A respect for all forms of life, including insects, is something my partner, Jessica, and I have tried to instill in our daughter, Ella. The summer before last, while filling up with gas late one night out on the outskirts of the Dismal Swamp, I found another male Hercules beetle. Attracted to the bright lights of the gas station, the behemoth was slowly crawling across the parking lot when I noticed it. Scooping it up, I brought it home to show Ella the next day. I still smile at the thought of her eyes widening in surprise at seeing the goliath insect, her little mind instantly filling with joy and wonder.

Kids have an innate curiosity of the natural world. But in this digital age, children are becoming more and more disconnected with nature. Less time is spent outdoors and more time is spent staring at a computer screen. To remedy this, Jessica and I take every opportunity to introduce our daughter to the wonders of nature, wherever that might be. A trip to the beach is not just for swimming and building sandcastles, but also for watching pelicans fly low over the waves and for picking up colorful shells washed ashore by the tide. A family walk through the neighborhood is a chance to spot squirrels foraging among a canopy of oaks and pines. Sunsets in July are opportunities to catch fireflies in the backyard.

All these seemingly little things, those brief moments of taking the time to simply observe the world around us, can really add up and profoundly shape impressionable young minds. My fondest childhood memories involve those innocuous moments in nature — everything from catching bluegills with my dad in an Eagle Springs farm pond on Saturday morning to watching my first dolphins frolic in the Myrtle Beach surf. And, of course, the giant beetle crashing my pool party. That childlike wonder has stayed with me for nearly five decades now and only grows stronger with each passing year.

How kids respond to nature and how they teach and raise their own children will shape how our societies function and will ultimately affect the overall well-being of this planet. It is my sincerest hope that our daughter continues to grow and maintain a sense of awe, respect, and love for the remarkable world around her. In time, I hope she passes that love for all living things down to her own children — even a love for big bugs.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

The Naturalist

The Naturalist

A Most Wonderful Plant

Unique to the Carolina wilds, the Venus flytrap is a botanical marvel

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

The year was 1860, and an industrious biologist was busy conducting experiments on a strange carnivorous plant in his backyard greenhouse in Downe, England. Plants that trapped and fed on other living organisms flamed the imaginations of 18th century biologists and the general public alike. Having traveled the world and written about many of its natural wonders, the biologist had recently become enthralled with a carnivorous sundew that grew in a forest near his home. He questioned how such a plant came to rely on the tissues of insects captured within its sticky tentacles for sustenance.

What began as a simple scientific hypothesis quickly blossomed into an obsession. When a friend, Dr. Joseph Hooker, director of the world-famous Kew Gardens, provided him with another botanical bestiary for study, his obsession became all-consuming.

The plant in question had been discovered 100 years before in the piney woods near Wilmington, North Carolina. The Colonial governor of the Tarheel state at that time, Arthur Dobbs, penned its first description in 1759 and marveled how the “great wonder of the vegetable world” possessed the ability to catch a fly between its modified leaves, like a spring trap. Several years later, that vegetable wonder became known as the Venus flytrap.

And the biologist who was working diligently trying to understand the mechanics of the flytrap’s carnivorous behavior in that backyard greenhouse? His name was Charles Darwin.

Lying flat on my belly, beneath towering pines and the brilliant blue sky of a humid August afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of Darwin as I closely examined a small grasshopper struggling within the vise-like grip of a large flytrap. With each twitch of the leg, the flytrap pressed its toothy green leaves more tightly around the struggling insect.

The ambient air temperature was somewhere north of ridiculous. Wiping sweat from my brow, I intently focused my camera lens on the miniature drama unfolding down on the forest floor. Grasshoppers had been particularly abundant that day, with hundreds of young nymphs hopping about my feet as I carefully walked across a Brunswick County pine savannah, searching for orchids to photograph. Flytraps had not been on my radar, but when I noticed the botanical carnivory playing out beneath a golden clump of wiregrass, I couldn’t resist snapping a few frames.

The young grasshopper finally stopped struggling, seemingly resigned to its fate. Magnified many times larger by the optics of my macro lens, the fanged snarl that clamped tightly around the doomed insect instantly reminded me of Audrey, the sentient man-eating plant from 1986’s musical/horror/comedy Little Shop of Horrors, a movie whose lead character design was inspired by the very plant I was currently photographing. It would take days for the flytrap to produce enough enzymes to fully digest this large meal.

It was likely Charles Darwin’s father, Erasmus, who planted the seed, so to speak, for his son’s obsession with carnivorous plants. The elder Darwin had examined, firsthand, the workings of Venus flytraps, not long after the species had been described. Writing in a 1789 poem titled The Botanic Garden, he described how the plant’s leaves possessed “a wonderful contrivance to prevent depredations of insects,” later elaborating “that when an insect creeps upon them, they fold up, and crush or pierce it to death.”

Decades later, his son would place small pieces of meat and drops of sugar water on a flytrap and eventually discover that it took a stimulation of two hair-like structures, nestled on the interior lobes of its leaves, within 20 seconds of each other, to trigger the closing of the trap. 

Growing in acidic, nutrient-poor soils where other plants struggle to survive, Venus flytraps are found only within a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina, and nowhere else on the planet. The reasons for this extreme limited distribution are not known. What is more certain is the fact that these charismatic perennials are becoming more and more rare across the landscape. In North Carolina, Venus flytraps once grew naturally in 20 counties. Today, they are found in just 12. The primary reason for their decline is habitat loss. That portion of the state is rapidly being converted into housing developments, fast-food restaurants and strip malls. Despite carrying a felony offense, poaching also contributes to the flytrap’s demise.

Nevertheless, where populations of the plant persist, their numbers can be surprisingly high. Years back, I had the unique opportunity to visit one such spot deep in the heart of Fort Bragg. Accompanied by a group of biologists and munitions specialists with the United States Army, I was able to examine a sloping hillside literally carpeted with hundreds upon hundreds of flytraps. The plants thrived there due in large part to the persistent fires caused by the frequent bombing of the land by the military. 

In 1875, Charles Darwin published his decades-long research on the Venus flytrap and other carnivorous plants in a book titled Insectivorous Plants. Though the volume did not shake the foundations of scientific thought the way his earlier book The Origin of the Species had, it did serve as a template for future studies on carnivorous plants. In the chapter describing the flytrap, the normally reserved biologist and progenitor of the scientific theory survival of the fittest declared the plant “one of the most wonderful in the world.”

Back in the Brunswick County pine forest, I get up off the ground with camera in hand. Flipping through the images on the LCD, I pause at a close-up of a green toothy maw wrapped around the body of the tiny grasshopper and am instantly filled with childlike wonder of this botanical carnivore. I smile and shake my head, trying in vain to process how such a plant evolved. A Venus flytrap is indeed the most wonderful plant in the world.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

Spy in the Woods

With camera traps, every day is like Christmas

Story and photographs by Todd Pusser

Dappled sunlight, filtered by a canopy of oak and pine, illuminates the trail that snakes along the edge of Eagle Branch Creek. The raucous calls of a red-shouldered hawk pierce the crisp fall air as I walk quietly toward a camera that I had mounted to the side of a tree next to the small creek. Every two months for the past three years, I have made the same woodland trek to check this camera, simply to satisfy my curiosity as to what animals are found in the woods so close to my childhood home in Eagle Springs.

Most wild animals, especially mammals, are extremely wary of humans. They see, hear or smell us long before we are aware of their presence. Many species are nocturnal and are only active when the cover of darkness masks their movements. As such, it can be nearly impossible to observe wild animals in their natural habitat. To remedy this, I use a weatherproof camera trap that can be left in the woods for long periods of time, and is capable of recording images day and night. A motion-activated sensor attached to the camera records photos or video of any animal that passes by.

The concept of camera trap photography has been around for over 100 years, when pioneering nature photographer George Shiras used a crude, but complex, remote system of trip wires and flashes fired by exploding magnesium powder, to record images of animals along the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan. The resulting photographs, published in National Geographic Magazine in 1913, became instant sensations. Since that time, the use of camera traps (also known as trail cameras, game cameras, remote cameras, etc.) has increased exponentially, with hundreds of models now commercially available in a wide range of budgets. I use inexpensive Browning trail cameras to record high-definition video as well as custom-built camera traps that house my Canon DSLR cameras for professional quality images.

Camera traps are used for a variety of applications and have become essential tools for many nature enthusiasts, from zoologists who want to monitor rare species in remote tropical jungles, to hunters hoping to bag a trophy buck on local game lands, to naturalists wanting to learn what animals visit their backyards.

Finally arriving at the camera, I sit down next to the tree and remove a small laptop from my backpack. Pulling the memory card from the camera trap, I insert it inside the portable computer. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I wait with eager anticipation for what surprises the camera might hold.

   

Over the three years that the camera has remained at this spot, it has recorded a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Opossums, raccoons, grey squirrels, cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer are seen nearly every day and night throughout the year. More surprising was a nearly-black, striped skunk seen nosing through the leaf litter one cold December night. In a lifetime of exploring the woods of Moore County, I have only observed the pungent mammals on two other occasions.

Another surprise was the large, heavily spotted bobcat that made a near daily appearance in front of the camera one April. Once, the camera recorded a video clip of a pair of river otters playfully sliding down the muddy creek bank and splashing into the water. More recently, for a period of several afternoons in July, when temperatures hovered well north of 90 degrees, a barred owl would land next to the creek, lay down on the ground and stretch its wings far out to the side, arch its head back and close its eyes, seemingly soaking in the sun.

By far, the rarest and most unusual animal recorded here over the last three years was a long-tailed weasel. From conversations I have had with local elderly farmers, weasels were apparently much more common 60 or 70 years ago, when their raids of chicken coops drew much consternation. They are rarely encountered now in the Sandhills. The short video clip of a weasel bounding right to left across the frame on a late summer evening provides tantalizing proof that the miniature carnivores still exist here. I have yet to see a live one with my own eyes.

Finally, the memory card finishes downloading. Leaning back against the tree, I thumb through the 80 videos that the camera has captured over the past two months. Once again, raccoons, opossums and deer make up most of the video captures. The highlight is a pair of gray foxes that wandered by the camera in the middle of the afternoon, with noses to the ground.

Copying the videos to my hard drive, I clear the memory card and reinsert it into the camera along with a fresh supply of batteries. It will be another two months before I check the camera again, but I am already counting the days until I can discover what new marvels it may hold.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Naturalist

In the Realm of Seadevils

Encountering wonders from the deep-sea

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

A crescent moon hung high in the sky over a sea as smooth as glass. The air was thick with humidity as our research vessel plowed slowly through the waters of the Gulf Stream 150 miles south of Cape Cod. Thousands of stars twinkled above while lightning danced across distant thunder clouds miles away. Below my feet, it was a mile and a half down to the ocean floor.

The steady sound of the massive winch suddenly stopped. The thick cable extending out from the stern, taut with tension, indicated that the deep water trawl net was close to the surface. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I could barely contain my excitement. You never know what you might catch when dropping a net far below the ocean’s surface. On this particular trawl, the net was towed around 1,500 feet deep. Chances are good you might catch something that has never been seen by human eyes.

The deep-sea is defined as waters below 660 feet, where sunlight no longer penetrates. At its most extreme point, the ocean is an astounding 36,201 feet deep — roughly 7 miles down. At those depths, the ocean is a pitch-black wilderness where temperatures hover just above freezing.

   

Left: Deepsea Shrimp.

Right: Black Sea Devil-humpback anglerfish. 

It is not hyperbole to say that more is known about outer space than the deep-sea. The ocean covers 70 percent of this planet, and on average, is nearly 2 ½ miles deep. As pointed out by author Helen Scales in her recent book, The Brilliant Abyss, the entire surface of the moon has been mapped to a resolution of 23 feet, while the deep ocean floor that blankets the Earth has only been mapped to a resolution of 3 miles.

As a kid, on family vacations to Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach, I would often find myself standing on the sandy shore and staring out over the ocean, trying to look past the horizon line and wondering what treasures lay hidden beneath. In middle school, I daydreamed of being Captain Nemo, from Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, piloting the wondrous deep-sea submarine Nautilus in search of sea monsters. Later, in college, I discovered real-life explorer William Beebe, who in 1930 became the first man to descend into the dark depths of the ocean, below the reach of light, using a large steel sphere lowered from a stationary ship by thousands of feet of steel cable. Beebe introduced the wonders of the deep to people around the world in a series of articles for National Geographic and popular books such as Half Mile Down. I never imagined at the time that I would be able to see some of the wondrous creatures Beebe described in his writings.

With a few final turns of the winch, the net was hauled onto the deck of the ship. Grabbing a hard hat and life vest, I walked out onto the stern to assist the fishery biologists in sorting the catch. Down on one knee, I began to pick through a cornucopia of our planet’s strangest inhabitants — creatures that look like they evolved from the mind of Dr. Seuss. Even their names evoke a Spielbergian science fiction epic: dragonfishes, greeneyes, lanternfishes, whalemouths, hatchetfishes, bristlemouths, star-eaters, gulpers. Many were velvet black with mouths full of huge teeth and possessed strange, glowing bioluminescent lures sprouting from their heads. There were bright red shrimp, glowing squid, and skinny eels with bird-like beaks.

I reached into the twine of the net and gently untangled a saber-toothed viperfish, which possessed a series of needle-sharp fangs that extended up from its lower jaw to just above its eye. A series of bioluminescent dots ran along its flanks while an elongated glow-in-the-dark lure extending from its dorsal fin dangled in front of its fearsome maul. When viewed only in a photograph, a viperfish would appear to the be most fearsome critter in the sea. Thankfully it grows only to a foot in length, as do the vast majority of the monstrous looking fishes from the deep.

Farther down the side of the net, I find another unusual fish, the fangtooth. Sporting a face only a mother could love, the 5-inch-long predator comes equipped with a massive mouth full of oversized teeth that are capable of tackling prey nearly as large as itself.

Viperfish

Suddenly, there is an exclamation of excitement from a biologist standing nearby. We all rush over to discover the ultimate prize in tonight’s haul: a small female humpback anglerfish commonly known as the black seadevil. Looking a bit like a demonic tadpole, she seemed to be all head with a rotund black body, huge mouth, big teeth, and a stout, rod-shaped lure that extended up from the top of the head, which was capped by a glowing, bacteria-filled light organ known as an esca. Scientists speculate the lure may be used to attract prey close to her vicious mouth — or perhaps to draw in a mate.

The deep-sea is vast, the largest livable space on the planet, and it may take years to find a mate. There are around 170 species of deep-sea anglerfish currently recognized by science, and many deploy a most remarkable reproductive strategy. Male anglerfish lack bioluminescent lures and are many times smaller than females. In several species, when a male finds a female, he literally latches onto her skin, like a tick. Once attached he never lets go for the rest of his life, taking “till death do us part” to a whole other level. Eventually, he fuses with her tissue and gains sustenance from her bloodstream. He is entirely dependent on the female for survival. In return, he provides her with a never-ending supply of sperm.

The abyss is unfathomable, a place beyond comprehension for us landlubber humans. Countless creatures that defy imagination still await discovery in its dark depths. I, for one, feel extremely privileged to have experienced some of its treasures firsthand.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.