The Naturalist

The Dweller of Sandy Places

A new species described from the Sandhills

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

One might assume in this age of globalization and the internet that there is nothing left to discover on the planet. If there are any new species of plants and animals yet to be observed by human eyes, they must exist in some poorly explored corner of Earth, tucked away in a remote Amazonian rainforest or at the bottom of the deep sea.

Of course, the trouble with assumptions is that they are frequently wrong. 

We are living in an era many naturalists have dubbed “a new age of discovery.” Thousands of new species are being described each year — everything from monkeys to brightly colored tropical birds. Indeed, many new species are found in faraway jungles and at the bottom of the sea, but a surprising number are discovered right in our own backyards.

1n 1995, an entirely new species and genus of tree dubbed the Wollemi Pine, which grows over 130 feet tall, was found just outside of Australia’s largest city, Sydney. In 2010, biologists lifted a rock in the middle of an eastern Tennessee stream and found a new crayfish. At nearly half a foot in length, the Tennessee Bottlebrush Crayfish looks more like a Maine lobster than a denizen of a backwater creek.

Perhaps most spectacular of all, a new species of whale — a whale — was described in 2002 from specimens that washed ashore on the crowded beaches of San Diego in the 1970s. Originally thought to be a rare species of beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere, biologists using advance genetic techniques, revealed that the cast-ashore leviathans were in fact a new species, which they named Perrin’s Beaked Whale after the biologist who first examined them. Despite their swimming in waters offshore our most populous state, humans have yet to observe a member of this odd species of whale alive in the wild.

In biological circles, North Carolina is frequently described as “the salamander capital of the world.” With 64 species found within its borders, North Carolina has more of the cold-blooded amphibians than any other state. Some, like the eel-like greater siren, a resident of murky, coastal swamp waters, can grow to lengths of over 3 feet. Others, such as the pygmy salamander, barely reach an inch in length and are among the smallest amphibians in the world.

Fifty years ago, Alvin Braswell, then an assistant curator of lower invertebrates at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, examined an unusual red salamander that had been found in the Sandhills region of the state. He initially thought the tiny 3-inch-long amphibian was just an unusual red variant of the Southern Two-lined Salamander, a common species found throughout much of North Carolina.

As more and more of the unusual salamanders were brought to the attention of the museum, Braswell began to suspect that they might be something new. Over time, it became clear that the little red salamander was found only along the margins of small creeks that meander through the Sandhills, and nowhere else.

In this day and age, describing a new species is a long, painstaking process that requires a lot of time and energy. Exact, minute, morphological measurements, as well as DNA analysis, need to be made across a series of collected specimens and then compared with those of closely related species. Often, the specimens were collected many decades ago, and their remains are preserved in jars of formalin tucked away in dusty museum cabinets scattered around the globe. Tracking each one down to make a proper comparative study is daunting and time-consuming.

Over the ensuing decades, Braswell worked his way through the ranks of the museum and eventually became the assistant director. Other duties called, and the description of the little red salamander was put on the back burner.

Enter Bryan Stuart, who began work at the museum in 2008 as the curator of reptiles and amphibians. Stuart, an expert in amphibian genetics and no stranger to working with new species, has found and described dozens of snakes, frogs and salamanders from the remote forests of Vietnam and Laos in Southeast Asia throughout his career.

With Braswell’s blessing, Stuart took over the study of the little red salamander and in December of 2020, published a paper (with Braswell as a co-author) formally introducing the Carolina Sandhills Salamander to the world.

Since 1735, when Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus introduced the concept of taxonomy, every living thing on the planet has been assigned a two-part Latin name. For the Carolina Sandhills Salamander, Stuart chose the Latin name Eurycea arenicola, which translated means the dweller of sandy places.

Though small in size, the salamander was big news in scientific arenas, and garnered worldwide coverage in the popular media. It was prominently featured on many end-of-the-year lists of the top species discoveries of 2020, right up there with a new monkey from Myanmar, a snake from India, and an orchid from Papua New Guinea.

For those who care about wildlife, the discovery of the Carolina Sandhills Salamander was a rare bright spot in the rather bleak year that was 2020. It also highlights just how little we know about this planet we call home. Who knows what other wonders are still out there, just outside the back door?  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser, who grew up in Eagle Springs, N.C., works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

The Naturalist

Among Kings and Killers

Abundant life on an island at the end of the world

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Words cannot describe it. Photographs will never do it justice. It has to be experienced, firsthand, to fully appreciate the sheer scale and magnitude. Standing before me, as far as the eye could see, were thousands upon thousands of penguins, all packed tightly together, each bird over 3-feet tall and weighing 25 pounds.

The immense rookery was full of frenetic energy, with birds constantly coming and going, tending to young, and greeting one another with rapid head nods and throaty, guttural calls. It was a complete sensory overload, a bit like standing in the middle of Times Square during a pre-COVID rush hour. I was on one of the most remote spots on the planet, about as far away from humanity as one can get, witnessing one of Earth’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

Lying just north of Antarctica and surrounded by the nutrient-rich waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia is a crescent-shaped island, 100 miles long, and full of rugged, 10,000-foot tall snowcapped mountains. A British territory, the island was first observed in 1675 by London-born Antoine de la Roché, whose ship had been blown off course while traveling from South America to England.

The 150,000 pairs of king penguins stretched from the shoreline all the way up the side of a mountain that was flanked by two broad, icy glaciers. The rookery on Salisbury Plain, near the northwest corner of South Georgia, is the largest on the island and one of the largest in the world.

King penguins are the world’s second largest species of penguin, surpassed only by their close cousins, the emperor penguins, who prefer to nest on the icy continent of Antarctica just to the south. Their regal-like plumage, befitting their common name, is composed of a layer of densely packed black and white feathers (to help shield against the cold) and a brilliant orange facemask.

Working as a naturalist for a tour company that specialized in travel to remote locations around the world, I had landed on the beach earlier that morning with 10 other passengers. As we carefully made our way along the sandy shoreline, dodging a caravan of penguins returning to the beach from an offshore foraging venture, we paused to watch a pair of massive southern elephant seal males (so named for their immense noses) bellow territorial warnings to one another.

Southern elephant seals, like king penguins, are creatures of superlatives. As the largest seal on the planet, males can grow to 16 feet in length and reach weights of 4 tons.

Scattered among the elephant seals and penguins are hundreds of Antarctic fur seals. Most were sleeping, stretched out on their bellies on the sandy beach, but some were sitting high up on tussocks of tall grass, surveying their surroundings. Looking a bit like domestic dogs, with dense fur coats, small heads and pointed snouts, Antarctic fur seals, as well as the larger elephant seals, are living testaments to the resiliency of Mother Nature.

When the famous sea captain James Cook landed on the island in January 1775, claiming it for the British crown and naming it after King George III, he found the land to be barren and inhospitable. However, he reported on the vast numbers of seals found along its rugged shores. Within five years, commercial ships from Britain and the United States descended upon the island in droves to hunt and harvest the abundant pinnipeds.

Elephant seals were killed for their oil and the fur seals harvested for their coats. In just a single year, one British vessel took 3,000 barrels of oil and over 50,000 fur seal skins. That kind of hunting pressure was not sustainable, and soon seal populations were nearing total collapse. Commercial sealing activities folded because there were simply not enough animals left alive to the make the business profitable. In 1972, international laws were established to protect marine mammals around the world, and since that time, populations of elephant seals and fur seals have made a remarkable recovery.

As we toured the immense penguin rookery, one young fur seal caught my eye. Unlike the other seals on the beach, which were dark brown, this one was a striking honey-blond color. This pale condition, likely a recessive genetic trait akin to albinism, is rare in fur seal populations and occurs in just 1 percent of the population. Our group stopped and aimed long telephoto lenses at the youngster, who seemed just as curious about us as we were about him.

Glancing out to sea, just beyond the blond fur seal, I caught sight of another superlative creature flying high above the waves. With a wingspan approaching 12 feet, the wandering albatross is Earth’s longest-winged flying bird, inspiring generations of sailors with its immense size and ability to glide effortlessly through the air in the strongest of gales. Later in the day, we would stop on nearby Prion Island, a small islet in the bay, to observe wandering albatrosses on their nests.

Albatrosses, penguins and seals, oh my. South Georgia is truly one of the great wildlife meccas on the planet. Even the waters surrounding the island host a tremendous diversity of life. Just the day before, as our ship approached the island from the west, we stumbled upon one of the greatest concentration of marine creatures I have ever seen in 25 years of sailing the high seas.

Under a brilliant blue-sky day, with only a light breeze blowing across the surface of the ocean, we stumbled upon an immense gathering of whales. As far as the eye could see, the tall blows of fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet (capable of reaching lengths over 80 feet and 70 tons), rose above the surface of the water. Dozens of the immense creatures were in view at any one time. Scattered here and there among the fin whales were rotund southern right whales and the occasional humpback whale.

As our ship transited carefully through the area, a long line of seabirds, consisting of prions, petrels and albatrosses, followed. A small group of hourglass dolphins rushed over to play in the wake left behind by the moving vessel. Life was everywhere.

We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, a zone where the cold currents from Antarctica meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The meeting of these currents can vary from year to year and our ship just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The sighting of the day happened just after noon, when a large group of killer whales approached the ship. Killer whales (a bit of a misnomer, as they are not actually a whale but rather the largest member of the dolphin family) have striking panda-like black and white markings, and when a mother and her calf surfaced close to the bow of the ship, numerous oohhs and aahhs erupted from passengers and crew alike. The group of 20 or so killers accompanied the ship for the better part of an hour and left a lasting impression on all those onboard.

I frequently look back at the images I took during my time around South Georgia. To witness such an abundance of wildlife, especially during this day and age, when so much of the natural world is feeling the negative effects of humanity, was an extraordinary privilege. It also offers a glimmer of hope for the future. If our society — all seven billion of us — can achieve the economic and political resolve to mitigate the decline of the natural world, humans and the other wild creatures that call this planet home, will flourish.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser, who grew up in Eagle Springs, N.C., works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

The Naturalist

The Natural History of Pumpkins

There’s more to the orange gourds then just pie and jack-o’-lanterns

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Pumpkins have always evoked strong memories of childhood and my Moore County home. I vividly recall each fall season my parents taking me to view the giant pumpkin display at the county fair in Carthage. I would stand dumbfounded, staring at the enormous behemoths weighing hundreds of pounds, and wonder how on earth a vegetable could grow so freakishly large.

As October rolled around, pumpkin decorations plastered the halls of West End Elementary School. My class would gather in the library to watch Ichabod Crane dodge a flaming pumpkin tossed by the Headless Horseman in the old 1949 cartoon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Speaking of cartoons, I’m pretty sure I can repeat every line from Linus’ Halloween ritual of waiting through the night, in his most sincere of pumpkin patches, for treats from the mythical Great Pumpkin. Thank you, Charles Schulz. 

However, it was Otis Boroughs who really sparked my interest in pumpkins. Otis grew several acres of pumpkins, and throughout the 1980s, he, along with his wife, Nancy (who happened to be my kindergarten teacher), hosted an incredible jack-o’-lantern display each Halloween. People would travel from all over the state to their farm in Eagle Springs to see his artfully carved faces of famous cartoon characters, sports mascots and wild creatures. It was a magical feeling, standing beneath starry skies, staring at the flickering light dancing from the jagged cuts of dozens of pumpkins. Heat, given off by candles deep inside the large, orange orbs, created a scent of warm pumpkin pie that permeated the night air.

Realizing how much I liked the pumpkin display, Otis and Nancy invited me over one Saturday, to teach me how to carve jack-o’-lanterns. This was long before the days when you could buy mass-produced pumpkin carving kits at Walmart. For much of that afternoon, Otis, using a special handsaw, patiently taught me how to carve Mickey Mouse and the Demon Deacon mascot of Wake Forest University (my father, a fan, was dismayed when I later attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill). Otis sent me home with a couple of large pumpkins to practice on, and from that day forward, I was hooked on carving jack-o’-lanterns.

When Otis and Nancy finally retired from showing their jack-o’-lanterns to the masses, I wanted to continue the tradition, so I took up the baton and started my own pumpkin show nearby. As well as traditional scary faces, I cut everything from Star Wars characters to rattlesnakes into the orange gourds, some years carving as many as 200 jack-o’-lanterns.

The simple act of placing a candle inside a carved pumpkin has long been a staple of Americana. According to Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin, the Curious History of an American Icon, one of the first illustrations of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern appeared in an 1867 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The image depicts a trio of young boys lifting up a carved pumpkin with triangle-shaped eyes, a triangle nose, and a jagged mouth, to the top of a fence post on a family farm. The candlelight emanating from the sinister face appears to frighten two young girls (perhaps their sisters) and a small dog walking down a dirt path.

Today, pumpkins are the quintessential symbols of the fall season, like conifer trees are to Christmas and rabbits are to Easter. Pumpkin pie is a prerequisite for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Images of pumpkins adorn horror movie posters and the covers of children’s books. In recent years, a pumpkin spice craze has swept the country, due in large part to the popularity of Starbucks lattes featuring the mix (typically a blend of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ironically, very little, if any, pumpkin). One can find hundreds of pumpkin spice products, everything from beer to granola and doughnuts to potato chips, in the aisles of grocery stores come October. There is even such a thing as (blech) pumpkin spice toothpaste.

Yet, for all its cultural familiarity, have you ever stopped to think about exactly what a pumpkin is or where it comes from?

It is a common misconception to think of a pumpkin as a vegetable. (I even refer to pumpkin as a vegetable at the beginning of this piece, but hey, I was only a kid, so what did I know?) Pumpkins, by botanical definition, are a fruit, just like apples, bananas and berries. They are essentially a seed case covered in a wall of flesh (the plant’s ovaries), formed when the flower of the plant is fertilized through pollination. Vegetables, like lettuce and celery, are just the non-fruit part of plants, such as leaves, stems and roots.

Pumpkins are herbaceous vines of the gourd family found within Cucurbita, a genus of plants that contain well over a dozen species. The true ancestors of pumpkins looked nothing like the head-shaped, orange globes we all know and love today. Originating in Central America and Mexico, early pumpkins were small (just a few inches in diameter), thin, hard-shelled gourds. Archaeologists found 10,000-year-old domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico, making them among the first plants to be cultivated by humans in North America.


Since that time, Cucurbita have been selectively bred into many of our grocery store staples, such as zucchini, acorn squash, yellow squash, butternut squash, and, of course, pumpkins. The sheer number of pumpkins cultivated today is mind-blowing. With catchy names such as Ghost Rider, Casper, Sugar Baby, Big Mac, Jack Be Little, and Possum-nosed (a personal favorite), pumpkins come in an infinite variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Some are even larger than small cars. Consider the current Guinness World Record Pumpkin, which, at a hefty weight of 2,624 pounds, is 600 pounds heavier than a Mitsubishi Mirage.

Of course, if it were not for pollinators, we would not have any pumpkins, or any of our food crops for that matter. The primary, natural pollinators of pumpkins are bees, especially squash bees of the genus Peponapis. Like most native bees, squash bees are solitary and nest in the ground. Typically, they forage for nectar and pollen at pumpkin plant flowers during early morning hours. To help increase yield, farmers often enlist the aid of honeybees, a species native to Europe, to help supplement pollination of pumpkin crops.

Unfortunately, in recent years, honeybees, as well as one-quarter of North America’s 4,000 species of native bees, have seen dramatic declines in their population numbers. As to why so many pollinators are being affected, scientists are not exactly sure. It is likely due to a combination of factors, including the increase use of pesticides, extensive loss of habitat, and a warming climate.

One thing is more certain. Pollinators keep this planet functioning, and without the services they provide, free of charge, crops would fail, ecosystems would falter, and Earth, in general, would be less habitable.

That is a thought more scary then even the most frightening of jack-o’-lanterns.  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

The Road Home

Well-traveled trails still hold surprises

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Unlike much of the rest of Moore County, State Road 1137 has changed very little since the days of my youth. Running north to south for just over 4 miles and through two different ZIP codes, the weathered two-lane blacktop is still bordered by open fields and pine forest. Interspersed here and there along its route is the occasional ranch-style house and double-wide trailer, all pretty much looking exactly the way they did in the early 1970s.

About the road’s midway point, in a sharp bend that cuts through a patch of turkey oak and longleaf, is my childhood home. It is a modest, single story, red brick house, with tall white columns extending up from the front porch, and a grey tin roof surrounded by a large well-manicured yard of centipede grass and acres of forest. The property sits atop a gently sloping hill in the far western edge of the Carolina Sandhills, near where the sandy, xeric soils of the Coastal Plain meet the densely packed clay-based soils of the Piedmont.

The skies here are wide open and free of light pollution. At night, the stars shine thick and bright and the Milky Way feels so close you can almost reach out and touch it. By day, the sky is the most brilliant shade of blue. On summer afternoons, deep purple clouds mushroom up from the east, and the sound of thunder echoes through the pines. During mid-winter, on those rare days when snow falls from somber grey clouds, one can actually hear the flakes hitting the ground.

The road itself is not much to look at and is easily taken for granted. It is not an especially scenic drive and looks pretty much like any other rural strip of asphalt throughout the Sandhills. The fields and forests that line its border do not reveal their secrets easily. But rest assured, there are wonders here.

Drive its route often enough and pay attention, as I have for nearly 47 years, and you will learn its rhythms. On most winter evenings, as the sun dips over the horizon, herds of white-tailed deer feed in the open fields that border the north end of the road near its junction with Hwy. 211. By day, brightly colored kestrels, North America’s smallest falcons, perch on the power line that cuts through those same fields. Early mornings in spring will find shiny black fox squirrels, the size of housecats, standing upright on the road’s shoulder near grandmother’s house with pine cones clasped tightly between their front paws. Blue flowers from Sandhills lupine brighten the roadside. Drive slowly on moonlit nights in May, with the windows rolled down, and you will be serenaded by the frenetic calls of whip-poor-wills. Come summer, abundant blackberries provide tasty treats for those who know how to spot their thorny shrubs growing beneath the power line cut. Heat lightning dances across the sky on most humid evenings, and fireflies blink on and off beneath the pines. The turkey oak leaves turn a deep burnt umber color in late October signaling the onset of fall. Eyeshine from grey foxes slinking across the road in front of the car late in the night is a common sight this time of year.

Yet, for all its familiarity, the road can still surprise. Just this past January, on an evening when torrential rains had supersaturated the ground for much of the day, the car headlights revealed a miniature marvel not far from the driveway to the house. Hopping out into the steady drizzle with flashlight in hand, I approached to find a 6-inch-long spotted salamander, so named for the brilliant dayglow yellow spots decorating its body, slowly walking across the road. Over all the years and thousands of times driving the road, I have never before observed this beautiful amphibian here.

Spotted salamanders need ephemeral ponds (temporary bodies of water that dry up for part of the year) to breed and lay their eggs. After a few weeks, the eggs hatch into a larval form complete with long tails and a bouquet of gills. When the ponds dry up in the spring, the larvae transform, like frog tadpoles, into terrestrial adults. The adults leave their pond and migrate far away, sometimes up to 1 mile, and then bury themselves underground, where they will remain for a year until the next breeding season’s rains begin and they start the cycle all over again. Considering the fact that spotted salamanders can live 30 years, I may well encounter the adult found near the edge of the yard once again.

My whole childhood was oriented toward animals and the outdoors. The natural curiosity was innate. And, like many kids in rural towns, I longed to get away. Eagle Springs just seemed too small. Magazines, such as Ranger Rick and National Geographic, as well as television shows like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, fueled my daydreams of exploring far-off lands in search of exotic beasts. I wanted to swim with the sharks and catch snakes in tropical jungles.

Fortunately, I have been able to live out most of those daydreams. My work has taken me around the world. I have dived with great white sharks off Mexico and caught snakes in the rainforests of Panama. After two decades of travel, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the natural world and all its wonders, from the exotic to the familiar.

Though I live far from the Sandhills today, I try to get back as often as I can. The last time I turned down the road home, it was just after sunset in late May and the sky was filled to the brim with stars. As I so often do here, I turned off the radio and rolled down the windows. About a half-mile or so from its junction with Hwy. 211, the bright beams of my headlights illuminated a herd of two dozen deer standing in the middle of the field, their eyes glowing a greenish yellow. Many lifted their heads with mouths full of grass calmly staring at the approaching vehicle. Another half-mile down the road and a grey fox dashed across the highway. Eagle Springs seemed anything but small.

Rounding the bend to the old brick house, a whip-poor-will called.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser will be a regular contributor to PineStraw. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at