The Fly in Wasp’s Clothing

The best costumes are made by Mother Nature

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Staring through a macro lens at the critter resting in the center of my photo tent, I have to constantly remind myself that I am not going to get stung. With large eyes and striking black and yellow markings, it looks for all the world like a wasp — a yellowjacket, to be more precise. Only when it rubs its forelimbs over its eyes does it begin to reveal its true identity. It is a rarely observed type of hover fly and a perfect doppelganger for the venomous wasp.

The day before, Floyd Williams, a retired ranger from Merchants Millpond State Park with a keen naturalist’s eye, captured the fly in his yard in Gates County. Well aware of my interest in unusual animals, he phoned to inform me of his prize, the Sphecomyia vittata. Not being well-versed in the scientific names of flies, a quick Google search revealed a much more manageable common name, the long-horned yellowjacket fly.

Like most people, I have never given flies much thought, other than when I am trying to shoo one out the car window or when I slap a deer fly taking a nibble from the back of my neck. Aside from politicians, and perhaps the Duke men’s basketball team, flies are among the most detested of all living things.

Yet for all the public apathy, flies are vital components of a healthy ecosystem. Need something to break down that pile of dog poop in the backyard? There’s a fly for that. Need something to pollinate those bright flowers in the garden? There’s a fly for that. How about ridding insect pests that raid those same gardens? You guessed it. There’s a fly for that. Sporting an infinite array of shapes and sizes, flies provide a wealth of underappreciated environmental services.

As I fiddle with my exposure, the hover fly begins to slowly walk across the floor of the photo tent. Reaching inside, I gently prod the fly with a toothpick, in an effort to move it to the center of the tent, back into camera range. Upon feeling the nudge to its abdomen, the fly suddenly lets out a sharp and unexpected buzz. I marvel. Not only does this fly look like a yellowjacket, it sounds like one too! The buzz only adds to the illusion. As far as mimics go, this one takes the top prize.

Flies of every kind are eaten by a plethora of animals. Spiders, birds, lizards, small mammals, even wasps relish a juicy fly. If one is going to fly about out in the open, during daylight hours, as hover flies (aka flower flies) do, it pays to look like something unappetizing, or better yet, dangerous.

Defenseless organisms that masquerade as dangerous ones employ an evolutionary survival strategy that biologists refer to as Batesian mimicry. Named for the Victorian naturalist Henry Walter Bates, who spent years trouncing around the forests of the Amazon and first discovered the natural phenomenon, this form of mimicry is surprisingly common. Most of the 6,300 or so species of hover flies found around the world bear a striking resemblance to wasps and bees.

Finishing up my session, I take the photo tent outside and open the side panel. With the toothpick, I gently nudge the wings of the hover fly, coaxing it to take off. In a flash, the fly zips out of the photo tent and lands a few yards away on the purple flowers of a backyard butterfly bush, perhaps needing a refreshing sip of nectar after its glamour shots. A five-lined skink, lounging on the railing of our deck, next to the flowers, pays it no mind. Nor does a cardinal singing nearby.

Later, scrolling through the photos on my computer screen, I find myself full of childlike wonder, once again marveling at the extraordinary resemblance of the hover fly to a yellowjacket. Even zooming in on the details of the legs, antennae and body, I find it difficult to establish that it is indeed a fly.

The optical illusion serves to drive home an important lesson: One need not travel to some distant or remote tropical jungle to discover remarkable wonders in nature. The wild right outside the front door is just as full of extraordinary creatures, if one only stops and takes the time to look.  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



Something in the Water

Diving with sand tiger sharks off the North Carolina coast

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

For nearly five minutes, I have been hovering motionlessly off the bow of the Hyde, some 60 feet below the ocean’s surface, staring out into the smoky, blue-gray water. Built in 1945 during the final days of World War II, the Hyde was one of the few ocean dredges outfitted with bullet-resistant steel and large guns. Once it was decommissioned, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries intentionally sunk the ship 18 miles off the coast of Wilmington in 1988 to provide recreational opportunities for fisherman and scuba divers. The Hyde now rests upright on a vast, flat, sandy bottom and is a haven for marine life.

Exhaling into my regulator, I spy a large, dark shape, near the edge of my vision, approaching through a dense school of baitfish. On it swims, ever closer, revealing more of its distinctive features. I note the golden-brown sheen of its skin, sprinkled here and there with black spots. An arched back tapers from a wide dorsal fin down to a narrow snout. On the underside of that snout is a mouth filled with large exposed recurved teeth; an imposing maul that makes the species extremely popular attractions in zoos and aquariums.

Raising my camera up to my face mask, I frame the sand tiger shark in my viewfinder and press the shutter. The shark, 8 feet long, swims closer still, mouth slightly agape. Finally, an arm’s length away, the sand tiger veers to my right and swims slowly by, completely ignoring me. With a few gentle thrusts of its tail, the shark disappears into the blue.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been fascinated by sharks. Their likeness features on Phoenician pottery dating back to 3,000 B.C. Aristotle wrote about them, as did Pliny the Elder, of ancient Rome. Many cultures even viewed sharks as deities. However, fascination soon gave way to fear. A vase, discovered in 725 B.C. in Ischia, Italy, depicts a shark-like fish attacking a man. The fear of being eaten alive has persisted through the centuries, eventually culminating in the 1975 movie Jaws. So strong is this fear, it is without parallel, even in a world filled with nuclear weapons and mass shootings.

Sharks have been in existence for a very long time, swimming ocean waters some 200 million years before the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Over 540 species of sharks are currently recognized by scientists. With each passing year, new species are continually being described.

In his 2003 book Sharks, Rays, and Skates of the Carolinas, the late marine biologist Frank Schwartz of the University of North Carolina Marine Sciences Institute, in Morehead City, documented 56 species of sharks swimming our state’s waters. Of the sand tiger shark, he wrote, “Common year-round in the Carolinas, especially July-November in shallow shelf waters.” Their presence in the shallow waters off North Carolina has made the state a mecca for recreational scuba divers and underwater photographers. Believe it or not, people willing to pay good money, flock here from all over the world for the chance to swim with these predators in the wild. North Carolina is one of just a handful of spots anywhere on the planet where divers can safely observe large sharks in their natural environment without the need for metal cages or the use of bait in the water.

Despite their docile demeanor, sand tiger sharks, like all large predators, are capable of inflicting a serious bite, and should be treated with respect. Consider, as well, an interesting tidbit about their unusual reproductive biology. Female sand tiger sharks possess two uteri. Within each of these uteri, the largest embryo consumes all its siblings and any unfertilized eggs that the female produces. Talk about sibling rivalry. With no competition for food, the embryos grow to a large size for the duration of their mother’s 10-month pregnancy. Born headfirst, the pair are over a meter in length (among the largest of all sharks at birth) and come equipped with a mouth of fully functional teeth.

With air running low in my scuba tank, I swim over to the anchor line and begin my slow ascent toward the dive boat drifting overhead. Glancing down, I count at least 20 large sand tigers circling the Hyde, a testament that the moratorium on fishing for large shark species within United States waters is working. Due to the fact that female sand tiger sharks only give birth to two pups at a time, every three years, the species is especially vulnerable to overfishing.

Off to my side, a sand tiger shark, high up in the water column, turns and slowly heads in my direction. The shark casts a curious eye as it swims by just a few feet away. This time, instead of raising my camera, I stop my ascent, and simply watch, fully enjoying the moment.  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


The Lords of the Rings

Innovation among dolphins in a salt marsh

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Tucked back in a western Florida salt marsh, far from the open ocean, a trio of bottlenose dolphins swim slowly through shallow waters searching for fish among a labyrinth of small, muddy islands covered in needlerush and a bright blue sky. Herons and pelicans, sensing an opportunity, patiently follow along, hopping from one mud bank to another as the dolphins continue their hunt through waters stained the color of a vanilla latte.

All of a sudden, one dolphin raises its tail high out of the water and brings it down forcibly, creating a massive splash and an audible “thwack” that can be heard throughout the expansive marsh. The predators have found their prey.

In water just a few feet deep, the dolphin starts to swim rapidly in a circle, vigorously pumping its tail up and down, stirring up the muddy bottom, creating a perfectly oval mud ring. The other dolphins swim over and the trio lift their heads out of the water along the edge of the mud ring, open their mouths, and wait.

A school of mullet, trapped inside the rapidly closing mud ring, starts to panic. Not wanting to swim through a wall of mud, the fish opt instead to leap out of the water, over the edge of the mud ring — right into the mouths of the waiting dolphins.

It’s all over in the blink of an eye. Each dolphin, having successfully caught a fish, lowers their head back into the murky water and continues hunting the narrow channels of the salt marsh. Before the morning is over, they will repeat this behavior dozens of times until fully satiated.

Bottlenose dolphins are renowned for their intelligence and adaptability. After humans and a few primates, they have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any living animal. Incredibly social, they have perfected innovative hunting techniques to maximize efficiency in capturing prey, no matter the environment.

In the Bahamas, bottlenose dolphins swim along shallow waters, using echolocation to scan sandy bottoms for buried flounder and razorfish. When prey is located, a dolphin will stick its head into the loose sand and push water out of its mouth to flush the fish from hiding. In tidal marshes along the South Carolina coast, bottlenose dolphins intentionally throw their bodies completely out of the water up onto mud flats, chasing fish they have trapped against the shoreline. In the deep waters surrounding Cocos Island, bottlenose dolphins work as a team to corral schools of baitfish into tight balls against the ocean’s surface, which prevents their prey from escaping. Off North Carolina, bottlenose dolphins have learned to follow shrimp boats, who regularly toss their unwanted bycatch overboard, providing easy meals for the hungry predators.

All of these distinctive feeding strategies reveal rich, sophisticated cultures, shaped by a level of intelligence and creativity not often seen in the animal kingdom, and are passed down from generation to generation.

The bottlenose dolphins that use the mud ring feeding technique do so only along the shores of Florida and nowhere else in the world. The behavior, first described from the shallow waters of the Everglades and the Florida Keys, has since been observed at various spots along the state’s west coast up into the Panhandle. 

I first witnessed mud ring feeding back in the early 1990s when I traveled down to Florida to complete my open water scuba certification with a class from the University of North Carolina.  Since that time, whenever I travel to the coastal waters of the Sunshine State, I keep a sharp eye out for these cunning predators. 

The last time I was fortunate enough to observe mud ring feeding, it involved a group of four dolphins, one of which was a small calf. I was first alerted to their presence by a pair of brown pelicans rapidly diving headfirst into the water along the edge of an immense marsh. The ungainly birds would surface, take wing, fly a few yards, and then dive again into the murky water. It took a minute or two before I saw the telltale grey, shark-like fins of the dolphins out in front of the pelicans.

Knowing immediately what the dolphins were up to, I grabbed my binoculars and settled into the seat on my aluminum jonboat to enjoy the show. Right on cue, the lead dolphin smacked its tail onto the surface of the water and began to swim in a tight circle, stirring up the mud in the process.

The pelicans, seeing the dolphin complete the circle, swoop in just as the other dolphins swim over and lift their heads from the water. Dozens of mullet suddenly burst forth from the surface of the water inside the mud ring, like an erupting volcano. A-free-for-all ensues, as both mammals and birds lunge from side to side trying to catch the leaping fish.

The dolphin calf, too young for solid food just yet, does not lift its head out of the water. It simply stays close to Mom, intently watching her every move. There is no doubt that this is an important teachable moment for the youngster. I can’t help but marvel at how their complex social lives so closely mirror our own.

The dolphins regroup and swim around a sharp bend in the marsh, quietly disappearing into the murky green waters, searching for the next school of fish.  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

The Naturalist

Of Golden Mice and Men

And the quest to see all the world’s mammals

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

“I have something here,” Jon Hall proclaims with an obvious air of excitement. “Can you see it?”

Nearby, another voice responds. “Yeah, I see it,” remarks Charles Foley, “but I can’t tell if it is a mouse or a bird.”

Despite standing just a few feet away, I cannot see either man, much less a tiny critter, in the deep dark of the moonless night. Both men have traveled hundreds of miles just for this opportunity and I dare not move for fear of spooking their quarry.

I hear the rustle of leaves as Jon slowly repositions himself, angling for a better view. Raising a high-tech thermal imaging scope to his eye, Jon focuses his attention on a dense thicket of briers a few yards in front of him.

The scope, as its name suggests, is able to detect heat emitted from a target, such as a warm-blooded mammal or bird, and generates an image allowing the viewer to see in the dark. Long used by the military to detect enemy soldiers on the battlefield, the technology has become more widely available in recent years and is now regularly used by police, search and rescue units, hunters, and in this case, mammal watchers.

“It is a mouse!” Jon’s voice rises an octave.

Charles, standing to my right, moves closer to Jon with his own thermal scope in hand. “Ah, but what kind of mouse?” he asks.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Jon responds. Taking his eye from the thermal scope, he raises a pair of binoculars and a flashlight with his spare hand. Bright light suddenly floods the forest, illuminating the thick tangle of vegetation, temporarily stunning the rodent who freezes in place. Staring through the binoculars, Jon proclaims, “It’s a golden mouse!”

From my vantage point, I raise my own pair of binoculars to my eyes, but all I can see is a hind leg and tail of the small mouse through the dense vegetation. I am unable to see enough detail to determine exactly what type of mouse it is. Charles, too, only catches a glimpse of the animal before it darts out of sight.

I should pause here. Perhaps by now, you might be wondering why three grown men would be standing in the middle of a brier-laden Carolina forest in the dead of night, each with thousands of dollars worth of specialized equipment in hand, trying to spot a mouse. A mouse, for Pete’s sake?

Ahhh, but not just any mouse. With a prehensile tail built for a semi-arboreal lifestyle, the enigmatic rodent is the only member of its genus. Active mainly at night and rarely observed in the wild, its lustrous golden-brown coat has captured the imagination of naturalists for generations. Famed 19th century painter John James Audubon was so enamored with the golden mouse that he once remarked, “In symmetry of form and brightness of color, this is the prettiest species of Mus (mouse) inhabiting our country.” 

More importantly for Jon and Charles, who have dedicated their lives to seeing every one of the approximately 6,500 species of mammal on the planet, it was a mouse neither had observed alive in the wild. 

Jon, currently based in New York, works as a statistician for the United Nations measuring the happiness and well-being of human populations. In his spare time, he maintains the internet’s premiere mammal watching website ( Much like more familiar bird-watching websites, Jon’s webpage regularly provides updates on interesting sightings and trip reports of mammal encounters from Borneo to Mexico. It was through the website that Charles (a researcher who has studied elephants in Tanzania for three decades) came to know Jon. The two men travel frequently together and currently host a podcast dedicated to the ever-growing pastime of mammal watching.

Last fall, I reached out to the men suggesting that they interview a friend of mine who has seen most of the world’s species of whales and dolphins. Through our conversations, I casually mentioned that they should come and visit me in North Carolina and perhaps I could show them a red wolf, the world’s rarest canid. With interest thoroughly piqued, Jon asked about other potential mammal species in the area, and that is how the subject of the golden mouse came up.

I confessed to not knowing much about golden mice, so I started asking around my social network of nature nerds and biologists if they knew of anyone who has encountered the species in the Carolina wilds. Before long, I was directed to Floyd and Signa Williams, two retired state park rangers, who had seen and photographed the mice on their rural Gates County property in years past.

Readily agreeing to help, Floyd and Signa soon located a dozen golden mice nests along the edge of a beaver swamp behind their house. The nests, unlike those of other mouse species in the state, are spherical in shape, much like a small soccer ball, and constructed of leaves, small twigs, and bark. On their property, the nests were located between one and eight feet off the ground in dense tangles of greenbriers and holly trees. 

L-r: Jon Hall, Charles Foley, Floyd & Signa Williams

After the brief encounter with the mouse in the brier thicket, we struck out finding any more the rest of the night, despite using the high-tech thermal scopes. Somewhat disappointed, we left Floyd and Signa for the evening and returned to our Airbnb rental over an hour and a half away.

The next morning, Signa texted to inform us we had caught a pair of golden mice in some of the Sherman Live Traps that we had placed along the edge of the swamp the day before. Ecstatic, we raced the 70 miles back to their house. 

On our way, Jon mentioned that a golden mouse is worth seeing up close. Peering into the aluminum trap, I could see what all the fuss was about. A golden mouse is an exquisite small mammal with large, curious eyes and a luxuriant golden pelage, unlike the muted greys of more familiar mice found inside homes and gardens. Simply put, the small, golden fluff ball staring back at me was the most beautiful mouse I had ever seen.

I placed the mouse inside a large photo tent where we spent the better part of an hour taking photographs and admiring its cuteness. All the while, the mouse remained surprisingly calm and docile. After its glamour shots, we returned the mouse, unharmed and no worse for the wear, back where we found it. 

A round of high fives and congratulations ensued. For Jon, it was his 1,999th species, an extraordinary accomplishment and a testimony to his lifelong obsession.

Despite having traveled the world and seeing many of its most charismatic mammals — everything from snow leopards in Asia, gorillas in Africa, and jaguars in Brazil — both Jon and Charles were all smiles and completely over the moon with their golden mouse encounter here in rural North Carolina.

I admire that about them. 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

The Naturalist

Backyard Bandits

Observing the private lives of a raccoon family

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

As I was walking past our living room window on a bright, winter’s night, something caught my eye. Out in the front yard, beneath a birdfeeder, stood a bandit. The full moon high above illuminated its distinctive hunched back, pointed ears, dog-like snout and bushy tail. Dexterous paws busily scooped up sunflower seeds from the ground, spilled earlier in the day by hungry cardinals and gray squirrels.

I stood quietly and watched as the raccoon turned its attention to the birdfeeder hanging high above its head. Standing on its hind legs, while simultaneously extending its front legs upward, the raccoon grasped the feeder with its paws and slowly rocked it back and forth, emptying more seed onto the ground. The ease at which the precocious critter performed the task left me with the distinct feeling it had done this before.

Over the next 15 minutes, the raccoon repeated this behavior numerous times, eventually emptying the birdfeeder of its contents. Satiated, or perhaps simply because there was nothing left to eat, the raccoon slowly ambled toward the edge of the yard and disappeared into the night, no doubt looking for more mischief elsewhere.

With their striped tails, large eyes, and distinctive black and white markings wrapped around a cute puppy-dog face, raccoons are among the most recognizable of North American mammals. Incredibly adaptive and intelligent, they make their homes in a wide assortment of habitats ranging from remote forests to heavily urbanized cities.

Growing up in rural Eagle Springs, along the western edge of the North Carolina Sandhills, raccoons were always present on the landscape but I rarely saw them. My most memorable childhood encounters with the crafty critters were among the pages of Sterling North’s Rascal and Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, two beloved novels that still feature prominently on my bookshelf. It was not until I moved to a densely populated Virginia city that I was able to observe raccoons, outside in their natural environment, with any detail.

Our 3-acre suburban yard bordered a tidal river and contained a mixture of loblolly pines and hardwood trees. One impressive tree, a tall sweetgum, with a large, open cavity about 15 feet off the ground, stood just outside our second-story bedroom window.

One April morning a few years back, I noticed a raccoon curled up in a tight ball at the cavity entrance. The animal remained there for several days, rarely moving, except to occasionally lift its head and stare at me when I mowed the lawn. After a couple of weeks, I began to worry that the animal might be sick. Toward the middle of May, I woke one morning to find three tiny, young raccoons peering out from the cavity along with the larger animal. The raccoon had not been sick, as I had feared, but was simply pregnant and had given birth to a trio of impossibly cute kits whose antics provided hours of entertainment.

Being able to observe the intimate details of the lives of animals is a rare treat, and so it became a morning routine, with a cup of coffee in hand, to watch the raccoon family for a couple of hours before work. Mother raccoons are attentive, loving and tender, and this one proved to be no exception. Throughout the day, she constantly groomed and nursed her young. As the kits grew, she would often leave the increasingly cramped tree cavity and bask quietly on a nearby tree limb, obviously treasuring a moment of solace from her rambunctious young.

Over time, her routine became predictable. She stayed nestled in the tree cavity with her young for much of the day, occasionally basking on nearby tree limbs when it was hot. At night, she ventured out of the cavity to look for food, always returning by sunrise. Toward the middle of summer, she began to take her young on her nightly forays.


The raccoon family utilized the entire yard but frequented the azalea garden and the patch of dirt beneath the bird feeders, where they eagerly gobbled up spilled sunflower seeds. Several times that summer, I observed the young foraging elbow deep in the river and marveled at the dexterity of their paws as they “washed” their food.

By early fall, mother raccoon weaned her kits and sent them on their way. I am not sure where they eventually settled, but on occasion, I would see a young raccoon dash across a nearby neighborhood street late at night in front of my car and wonder if it might be one from our yard.

We ended up moving away from that riverfront property over six years ago. From time to time, I still think about that mother raccoon and wonder if she might still be alive. With abundant food and adequate shelter — which our yard had in spades — raccoons can live for well over a decade. It is entirely possible she is. Perhaps this spring will find her raising another family of young kits inside the cozy tree cavity just outside our old bedroom window.

Thinking about that now, 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

The Naturalist

The Bucket List Fish

The wish of a lifetime comes true

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

I suppose my bucket list is different than most. Firmly in the grip of middle age, with likely more life behind me than in front, my list has remained constant since the days of my youth. Unsurprisingly, for those who know me, most of the items revolve around natural history in some form or another, and frequently involve travel to remote locations to see rare or poorly known animals. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to check off a few items from the list but one, in particular, holds a special place above all others.

It all started back in the early 1980s when, as a 12-year-old kid, I stumbled upon a photo in National Geographic Magazine of famed shark researcher Eugenie Clark, clad in a wetsuit and scuba tank, grasping the tall dorsal fin of a whale shark off Baja, Mexico. Such behavior is frowned upon today but, back then, the sight of a person grabbing onto the world’s largest fish and taking it for a ride a hundred feet below the ocean’s surface, down into the abyss, sparked my imagination. I wanted more than anything to see a whale shark in the wild, and above all else, I wanted to swim with one, up close and personal, in its own element.

Fast forward to 1996. While standing on the flying bridge of a research vessel over 100 miles off the west coast of Florida, I encountered my first whale shark. The shark, nearly 40 feet in length, cruised gently beneath the placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico, its white polka-dot body practically glowing in the brilliant blue water, as it passed by within a stone’s throw along the starboard side of the ship. To say I was ecstatic is an understatement. I was completely over the moon with joy, having seen the beast of my youthful dreams.

Over the following 25 years, I encountered the immense fish a dozen more times in such varied locations as Hawaii, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and, once, off the coast of my home state of North Carolina. However, all of my sightings were made from the vantage point of steel decks on large ships, high above the surface of the sea. I never had the opportunity to actually get into the water and swim with these amazing animals. My National Geographic moment eluded me, until recently.

Isla Mujeres is an island located off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is here, in the clear blue water surrounding this tiny speck of land, that the largest known gathering of whale sharks on the planet was recently discovered. Upon learning this, my partner, herself a marine biologist, and I hopped onto a plane and headed south to observe this phenomenon for ourselves.

Capable of reaching lengths of over 45 feet and weights approaching 15 tons, a whale shark owes its common name to its immense size. Admittedly, it’s a name that can be quite confusing to the average person. Is it a whale or a shark, or some strange hybrid between the two? A whale shark is in no way related to the warm-blooded mammals known as whales, but rather is a cartilaginous fish — one of over 530 species of sharks currently known to science.

Understandably, some may question the sanity of wanting to swim with a fish the size of a school bus. However, whale sharks have extremely small, pointed teeth, and feed primarily on zooplankton and tiny fish, unlike the more carnivorous habits of their famous cousin, the great white shark.

Whale sharks flock to the waters off Isla Mujeres each summer to feed on the eggs released by spawning schools of false albacore tuna. A thriving tourist industry has built up in the area, and thousands of people have experienced the thrill of swimming with these gentle giants.

During our week there, we encounter well over 300 whale sharks, an astonishing number for such a rare fish. Though global whale shark populations are unknown, the species is considered endangered. At one point, as our boat drifted quietly on the calm Caribbean Sea, we could see whale sharks, with their immense polka-dot dorsal fins breaking the water’s surface, clear out to the horizon.

Donning a mask and snorkel, I finally have the opportunity to slip into the water among the sharks. Lying motionless at the surface and staring out into the infinite blue, I find myself unconsciously humming the theme to Jaws.

After a few minutes, near the edge of my vision, a dark shape appears. As it nears, I take note of the large mouth set on the front of a square-shaped head, and an immense body covered in a unique pattern of white spots. Powered by a tail spanning over 10 feet from tip to tip, the enormous fish swims closer and closer. Raising my underwater camera, I frame the shark in the viewfinder and press the shutter as it swims by within arm’s reach, completely ignoring me. Never before have I been so close to such a large creature.

Enthralled and feeling more than a bit humbled, I continue to watch the leviathan as it swims slowly out of sight, disappearing into the infinite blue void — a childhood dream, carried nearly four decades, finally realized.  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

The Naturalist

Ghosts Among the Pines

The white squirrels of Rockingham

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Hop on U.S.  in Aberdeen and take it south, out of town. Cross over the floodplain of Drowning Creek at the Richmond County line and continue through the small hamlet of Hoffman, past the majestic stands of longleaf pine and wire grass of the Sandhills Game Land, and the old NASCAR motor speedway. Approaching the city limit signs of Rockingham, take a right turn into any of the suburban neighborhoods bordering the road and keep your eyes peeled. Among the patchwork of ranch-styled houses, manicured lawns and forest edges, you might just see a ghost.

It was my late uncle, Lamar, who first told me about them. The ghosts in question are part of a unique population of the grey squirrels that call this Sandhills town home. The squirrels here are not your average run-of-the-mill bushy-tailed rodents that are the bane to backyard gardeners and bird feeders everywhere. Many, instead, sport unusual, brilliant, snowy white fur coats and feature dark blue eyes.

I first set out to see the white squirrels of Rockingham one cold December day over 12 years ago. About a mile off U.S. 1, along a small section of road bordered by large oak trees and old homes, I counted a dozen white squirrels scattered here and there among the grassy yards. One yard in particular, with a large birdfeeder mounted atop a wooden pole next to a window of a single-story brick home, held four individual white squirrels.

After I stopped and rang the doorbell of the house, a kind, soft-spoken elderly man met me at the door. When I requested permission to photograph the white squirrels in his yard, his eyes lit up. He remarked that the white squirrels held a special place in his heart, reminding him of his late wife, who had filled the birdfeeder next to their living room window with sunflower seeds every day just so she could watch their antics. It was a tradition he had continued long after her passing, and it thrilled him that someone else had taken an interest in “her” squirrels.

“You go ahead and photograph the squirrels to your heart’s content,” he said.

With that, I lugged my camera gear out of the car, sat down quietly at the edge of the yard, and waited. Cardinals and chickadees, typical yard birds for the area, flew back and forth from the birdfeeder to a hedgerow, their incessant calls breaking the silence of an otherwise quiet winter’s day.

Before long, a luminescent white squirrel emerged from a hollow cavity 20 feet off the ground in a robust oak tree along the edge of the driveway in the front yard. Walking out onto a long vertical limb, it made a flying leap onto a nearby powerline that stretched across the width of the front yard. Like a miniature tightrope walker, the squirrel nimbly ran the length of the powerline and jumped off onto a pine tree. Scampering down the trunk, it hopped to the ground and raced over to the birdfeeder next to the window.

Watching it reminded me of another, more celebrated North Carolina population of white squirrels. Each spring, Brevard, a quaint town nestled within the mountains of Transylvania County, holds a weekend-long “White Squirrel Festival,” attracting thousands of tourists from across the state. The town is so enamored with their white squirrels that it created a sanctuary for the pale mammals, making it illegal for anyone to hunt, trap or kill one within city limits.

Stark white animals have captured the imagination of mankind for millennia, and figure prominently in myth and legend. Many Native cultures across the globe view albino animals as deities or omens of good luck. Albino animals feature prominently in popular culture as well, perhaps none more so than the great white whale pursued by the obsessed Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s literary classic Moby Dick.

The white squirrels in both Rockingham and Brevard are not actually albinos, but are what biologists refer to as leucistic animals. Like albinos, leucistic animals lack pigment in their skins but retain small amounts in certain parts of their bodies, especially the eyes. Both albino and leucistic animals are rare in nature. Their stark white coloration makes them especially vulnerable to predators, and logic dictates that populations of white squirrels should remain low in areas where foxes, red-tailed hawks and feral cats are common. However, the populations of white squirrels in both Carolina towns appear to be thriving.

Back in Rockingham, a normal-colored grey squirrel came bounding across the yard and hopped up onto the bird feeder across from the white one. Together, they enjoyed mouthfuls of sunflower seed as the afternoon sun drifted across the Carolina blue sky. The yin and yang contrast between the two provided a wonderful photo opportunity, and I raised my camera. Framing the two squirrels in my viewfinder, I noticed the elderly man sitting quietly inside the nearby window admiring them. He was smiling.

Pressing the shutter, I smiled back. PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

The Naturalist

Legion of the Night

The beauty of moths

By Todd Pusser

Butterflies get all the love. All around the world, festivals are held in their honor. Entire gardens are planted specifically to attract them. Poems praise their beauty. Kids even dress up as butterflies for Halloween.

Moths, on the other hand, are frequently overlooked and ignored by most people. If noticed at all, moths generally get a bad rap. Gardeners despise hornworms, the large caterpillars of sphinx moths, feeding on tomato plants in the backyard. Gypsy moth caterpillars, capable of defoliating entire trees, are the bane of property owners throughout areas of the Northeast.

Even in popular culture, moths are frequently associated with superstition and death. The calling card of the serial killer from the popular 1990s movie Silence of the Lambs was the cocoon of a death’s-head hawkmoth (yes, there is such a thing) placed inside the mouths of his victims.

About the only time moths have received any positive press is when Mothra dragged Godzilla by the tail out of Tokyo.

Cecropia Moth

Last July, on a hot and humid night, I pulled into the parking lot of a brightly lit gas station along the edge of the Dismal Swamp in the northeastern corner of the state. It was during the height of the pandemic, and few other cars were around. In need of caffeine, I stepped out of my vehicle and walked along the side of the building toward the front door. Casually glancing up, I was stunned to see a large luna moth clinging to the side of the building, its striking lime-green wings contrasting sharply with the white paint.

The gentle luna moth is the teddy bear of the insect world, sporting a plump, furry body, feathery antennae, and a pair of 3-inch-long sweeping tail streamers. It is among North Carolina’s largest and most spectacular moths. I was so pleased to see one that I casually mentioned it to the station’s clerk while paying for my beverage. A blank stare was my only response. Finally, she asked quizzically, “You saw a what?”

I said again, “There’s a luna moth outside your front door.” Blank stare once more.

“Oh,” said the clerk with a nervous smile. “Have a nice night.”

Most people think of moths as drab and boring. It is true that many moths possess muted shades of brown or grey colors, but a surprising number are as colorful and intricately patterned as any butterfly. Take, for example, the giant leopard moth, common to many parts of North Carolina. Looking like a flying Dalmatian, it is a large, bright white moth covered in an array of black polka dots. An entire family of moths known as underwings sport drab tree-bark-patterned forewings and brightly colored hindwings, which they only flash when frightened by a predator.

Luna moth (Actias luna), freshly emerged from its cocoon in early spring in the Lowcountry of South Carolina

Speaking of underwing moths, many possess common English names reflecting a marital theme, a quirky tradition started by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. Among the more descriptive ones are the tearful underwing, the betrothed underwing, the dejected underwing, the divorced underwing, and the oldwife underwing. Clearly, entomologists have a sense of humor (and perhaps one too many beers) when it comes to naming moths. Or perhaps they are just in need of a good marriage counselor.

Moths are among the most diverse groups of animals on the planet (surpassed only by beetles), with over 200,000 species (and counting) found worldwide compared to just over 17,000 species of butterflies. They come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. Many of our state’s smallest species, known as micro moths, could easily fit onto the head of pin. The largest species in North America, the cecropia moth, possesses enormous wings that stretch 7 inches from tip to tip, making them larger than many species of bat. A member of the spectacular silk moth family, the cecropia (and the luna moth mentioned earlier) does not feed as an adult and relies on stored energy from its caterpillar stage. As such, the cecropia lives for only a few days, leaving it precious little time to find a mate and perpetuate the species.

Unlike the showy silk moths, many night-flying moths are masters of disguise and closely resemble bark and leaves to help them blend into their surroundings during the day. Some even look like bird droppings.

Not all moths are nocturnal. Many fly during daylight hours. Those that do tend to mimic other insect or animal species, such as bees and wasps. One well-known day-flying moth is the hummingbird clearwing, which mimics the size, shape and flight pattern of the ruby-throated hummingbird. Like its namesake, it is frequently observed hovering over flowers in urban gardens.

Tulip tree beauty moth

Just this past April, I was admiring a cherry tree in full bloom in a friend’s yard when I did a double take. What I initially thought was a bumblebee hovering over a blossom above my head turned out to be a moth known as Nessus sphinx. With two bright yellow bands wrapping around a black abdomen, the moth was a perfect replica for the stinging insect. As I followed it from blossom to blossom, I realized the rapid wings of the moth even sounded like the buzz of a bumblebee.

Like bees, moths are important pollinators of many flowers and crops. Throughout all their life stages, from caterpillars to adults, moths serve as a critical food resource for many birds and other animals. Studies have shown that moth caterpillars are the preferred food for nesting birds, such as eastern bluebirds, as they are both easy to digest and full of protein.

Unfortunately, moths have suffered serious declines in their populations due to habitat loss, light pollution, and the extensive use of pesticides on the landscape. Their ecological importance and the impact that they have on the world around us is difficult to understate.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

His favorite book is Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

The Naturalist

Like Son, Like Father

A manatee, a rattlesnake, and a change of perspective

By Todd Pusser

Putting on a wetsuit is an ordeal, especially if you have never done it before. The process of pulling a thick piece of neoprene up over your legs and torso is exhausting. So it was as I strained with all my might, trying in vain to pull the crushed rubber material up over the last few inches of my father’s shoulders.

Finally, with a few extra twists and turns, I was able get to Dad fully suited up. Pulling the zipper up his back, I turned him around to inspect how well the rented contraption fit him. Standing there on the bow of our aluminum jon boat, Dad looked like an aging superhero with his white hair, all aglow under a bright January sun, contrasting sharply with his skintight black wetsuit.

I handed him a mask and snorkel and he promptly belly flopped over the side of the boat. Dad had never snorkeled before, not even in our backyard swimming pool. I figured this was as safe a place as any for his first try. Our boat was anchored near a large, freshwater spring, many miles away from the ocean, and the calm water was only 8 feet deep.

I had asked Dad to join me for a trip to Crystal River, Florida, to dive with mermaids, something he agreed to without hesitation. Errr . . . I meant manatees. I wasn’t trying to mislead my father — after all, lovesick, old-timey sailors frequently mistook the sea cows for voluptuous sirens. No, I had asked Dad to come along with hopes that he could gain a better understanding of the career path I had chosen for myself.

I have always had a strong love for nature, especially creatures of the ocean. Despite growing up in landlocked Eagle Springs, over a hundred miles from the nearest beach, my passion for the sea was innate, though a chunk of it was certainly inspired by Sunday afternoon viewings of the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau at Granny’s house.

Dad never fully understood my obsession with nature, but he tolerated it. More importantly, he and Mom always encouraged and supported me, especially when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. The answer was always the same — a marine biologist.

As soon as Dad hit the water, a manatee appeared from out of nowhere. Dad gave an audible “grunt” in his snorkel, obviously surprised by the sofa-sized mammal that had snuggled up next to him. Despite their size, manatees can be quite curious, even playful, and this particular one nuzzled its head up under Dad’s hand, wanting a scratch like some overgrown puppy. (Disclaimer: This interaction took place over decade ago. Touching manatees is no longer permitted.)

As quietly as I could, I slipped into the water, fumbling with the controls of my underwater camera. The manatee, ever curious, kept swimming circles around me and my father. Occasionally it would pause to scratch its back on the anchor line that ran from the bow of the boat to the river bottom. After 10 minutes or so, it swam off. Dad climbed back into the boat, shivering from the cold water but clearly exhilarated by the whole experience. The sparkle in his eye told me everything I needed to know. No longer would he wonder about what motivates his son in life.

The following summer, I asked Dad to join me once again in the field, this time in the Albemarle Peninsula of coastal North Carolina. A wild, sparsely settled region of the state, with immense tracts of farmland surrounded by thick, pocosin swamps full of bears, bobcats and red wolves, the peninsula is one of my favorite places.

As a kid, Dad and I did not spend much time together outside. The family carpet business in West End took up most of his time. He and Mom worked hard, busting their butts Monday to Saturday, through all hours of the day, providing for our family.

It was the first afternoon of a planned four-day trip, when Dad and I encountered the rattlesnake. We came upon the venomous serpent stretched out in the middle of a long dirt road that cut through a dense patch of forest. Its yellow and black scales glistened in the late afternoon light.

I stopped the car about 20 feet in front of the snake and slowly opened the door with camera in hand. Dad, reluctantly, did the same.

I find snakes, all snakes, to be beautiful creatures. Always have. Dad, on the other hand, emphatically does not. An insufferable ophidiophobe, his mantra in life (perhaps many of you can relate) is, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” As a kid, whenever a snake appeared in our rural Eagle Springs yard, Dad always assumed it was venomous and promptly dispatched it with a deft stroke of a shovel. As I matured, I realized that not all snakes seen in the yard were venomous, so I would plead with Dad not to kill them. Sometimes, if I whined long enough, he would relent and allow me to catch and move them unharmed to a nearby patch of forest.

Back at the dirt road, I asked Dad to go and kneel down behind the rattlesnake so I could take a photo that would give a sense of scale (no pun intended) to the 4-foot-long serpent. He cocked his head, raised an eyebrow, and calmly replied, “Hell no.”

I tried to explain that rattlesnakes are not aggressive and that they do not attack people. I explained that most venomous bites occur when people try to kill a snake. I even described how snakes are beneficial to have around and that they eat a variety of pests, many of which carry ticks that harbor disease. This failed to impress and Dad remained steadfast. I figured as much.

Wanting to get a few shots of the snake in habitat, I took out my wide-angle lens and lay down on the dirt road, just out of strike range of the venomous serpent. The rattlesnake remained perfectly still, neither flicking its tongue nor vibrating that famous tail. It was simply biding its time, waiting for us to leave it in peace.

After a few minutes of watching me, Dad, realizing there was nothing to fear, agreed to take a knee behind the snake. As I framed him in the camera, he even managed to crack a nervous smile. I wondered to myself if perhaps Dad was changing his point of view about snakes.

A few months later, I got my answer. Mom called to tell me a most unusual story. While driving down a rural Jackson Springs road, she and Dad encountered a rattlesnake in the center lane. Instead of running it over, Dad pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road, got out, and fetched a tree limb. Stopping oncoming traffic, he coaxed the venomous reptile off the road into the safety of the woods, all the while explaining how beneficial snakes are to the environment to Mom and the other exasperated drivers.

I have never been more proud.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

The Naturalist

Requiem for a Dolphin

Pondering extinction in a river far away

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

On February 18, 1914, Charles Hoy, the teenage son of an American missionary in the Hunan Province of China, went duck hunting on Dongting Lake, an offshoot to that country’s longest river, the Yangtze. Instead of procuring waterfowl that cold winter day, young Hoy shot and killed an unusual freshwater dolphin. A naturalist at heart, Hoy kept the skull of the dolphin as well as several photos documenting his trophy, which he presented to the Smithsonian Institution upon his return to America.

Gerrit Miller Jr., a scientist at the renowned museum, examined the skull and declared that it belonged to a new genus and species of dolphin, which he christened Lipotes vexillifer in 1923. The name Lipotes comes from the Greek word lipos meaning “fat,” and the difficult-to-pronounce species name vexillifer is Latin for “flagbearer.” Scientific jargon aside, the dolphin is commonly known as the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji (pronounced Bi-gee).

Fast forward 83 years later, to December 2006, when our research vessel pulled into the enormous port city of Wuhan, China, along the shores of the Yangtze River. The city, with a population of more than 11 million people, was still many years away from achieving notoriety as the origin of a global pandemic that continues, as of this writing, to cripple economies and destroy lives.

At the time, despite it being a city larger than New York City, few Americans had ever heard of Wuhan. I confess to only having a vague understanding of where the city sat geographically within the vast country of China before that trip. I had traveled to the bustling city to join a team of two dozen scientists, gathered from around the world, to conduct a survey of the Yangtze River for the dolphin.

Since the species description in 1923, a major revolution and world war had prevented Western scientists from studying the unusual animal in more detail. In 1979, China opened its borders to the outside world, and the first surveys were conducted for the dolphin. A joint team of Chinese and European scientists found the baiji to be exceedingly rare and determined that only a few hundred individuals occupied the Yangtze, the only place in the world where the species is found.

By the time of our survey, it was estimated that the entire population numbered just a dozen individuals, and the baiji was widely considered the most endangered large animal on the planet.

Most people know dolphins, in particular the bottlenose dolphin, from attractions at large aquariums such as Sea World, or (if you are of a certain generation) television shows like Flipper. But few would recognize the baiji as a dolphin. With a long snout filled with scores of needle-sharp teeth, small beady eyes, broad flippers and a tiny fin on its back, the animal looks downright prehistoric.

For six weeks, our research boats, using high-powered binoculars and towing sophisticated underwater hydrophones to record any sounds the dolphins might make, combed the Yangtze River from one end to the other. Twice. We failed to see a single dolphin.

The Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world, behind the Amazon and the Nile, and has dozens of tributaries (most of which are dammed) and two main, large lakes. Aside from its wide mouth near Shanghai, the Yangtze is a relatively narrow river, averaging just over 1 mile in width throughout its course. It is entirely possible we missed an individual baiji or two but, considering the amount of effort involved and the thoroughness of the survey, it seemed unlikely a sustainable population remained in the river.

The results of our survey were published the following year declaring that the baiji was likely extinct in the wild. One of the lead scientists, Samuel Turvey, published a book, Witness to Extinction, chronicling the events of the survey. For a brief time, media outlets ran stories on the demise of the dolphin, both online and in major newspapers. But within a few weeks, the baiji was largely forgotten. The chances are good that — other than its mention here — you have never even heard of a baiji.

Extinction is something that we are taught in elementary school. We know that dinosaurs once walked this planet, and that wooly mammoths are relics of the last Ice Age. But the concept of extinction happening today remains a bit abstract and insignificant.

The loss of the baiji had no effect on global stock markets. There are no days marked on our calendars commemorating its demise. All that is left of the baiji’s time on this planet are a few dusty skeletons and remains preserved in vats of formalin, scattered in museums around the world.

In the nearly 100 years since the baiji was described, we still know virtually nothing about it. Basic questions about its home range, preferred habitat, what it liked to eat, even its average lifespan remain unanswered. What is more certain, the dolphin was a part of the vast tapestry of life unique to this planet, and its untimely demise should provide food for thought. It simply lived its life trying to survive and provide for its own, just like the rest of us.   PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at