What is a Biological Station?

Field stations serve a number of critical scientific functions.  They give researchers reliable access to the environment.  They accumulate and integrate multidisciplinary, place-based knowledge that provides a baseline from which to evaluate environmental change and predict how biological systems may respond to it in the future.  They also transform the lives of students of all ages and serve as training grounds for the next generation of scientific leaders.  Finally, they are on the front lines of integrating science into decision-making and of communicating science to the general public.

– Excerpt from Field Stations and Marine Laboratories of the Future: A Strategic Vision written by the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS)




The Highlands Biological Station (HBS) is an inter-institutional center of the University of North Carolina and is administered by Western Carolina University. The Highlands Nature Center, Laboratory, and Botanical Garden are part of the Station, which is supported in part by the Highlands Biological Foundation.  The three panels of the HBS logo symbolize the key facets of the Station: The Nature Center is represented by the salamander panel, the Botanical Garden is symbolized by Oconee bells, and the research and educational dimension of the Station and Foundation is represented by the central panel signifying the ecology of the Highlands Plateau.

Our Mission: To foster research and education focused on the rich natural heritage of the Highlands Plateau, while preserving and celebrating the integrity of the “biological crown of the southern Appalachian Mountains.”



The Highlands Biological Station was founded in 1927 as a small private research facility by a group of amateur and professional biologists and concerned citizens in the Highlands, North Carolina area. Organized initially as the Highlands Biological Laboratory, Inc., its first laboratory building was built in 1930. The rich diversity of the region attracted researchers working on many different taxa and systems; this led to growing support from the State of North Carolina and the National Science Foundation, with additional labs and dorms built in the 1950s and 60s, land and building acquisition in the 1980s, and further infrastructure and facilities improvements in 2001 and 2012.

In the mid-1970s HBS was acquired by the University of North Carolina, and is now administered on behalf of the university system by Western Carolina University. At that time the original non-profit research laboratory was reorganized into the Highlands Biological Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization that remains closely associated with HBS. Highlands Biological Station realizes its mission of education and research broadly through (1) support of scientific research and graduate training, (2) field-centered courses and visiting academic groups, and (3) diverse outreach programming for regional K-12 schools, the local community, and life-long-learners.

Links:  more information about HBS



Founded in 1927, the Highlands Biological Foundation, Inc. (HBF), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, is one of the oldest non-profit organizations on the Highlands Plateau in North Carolina. The Foundation is governed by a 32-member Board of Trustees consisting of academics and members of the Highlands community. In addition to offering community programming, HBF raises funds in support of the Station including a research Grant-in-Aid program and annual scholarships to summer courses, which have supported hundreds of researchers and students over the years. The Foundation is sustained by donations, memberships (including a consortium of regional colleges and universities), and fundraising. Through financial support of the Highlands Biological Station and its programs, including the Laboratory, Nature Center, and Botanical Garden, in addition to its own programs, the Highlands Biological Foundation has served as a catalyst for galvanizing community support around pressing conservation needs; people are informed, inspired and brought together by their shared love and concern for the southern mountains.

HBF programming includes weekly Zahner Conservation Lectures in the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. HBF also hosts two annual fundraisers. Wildflower Whimsy is held as a celebration of spring ephemerals in May and Highlands on the Half-Shell–a celebration of the end of another year filled with new programs–takes place under a canopy of colorful leaves in fall.

Links:  more information about HBF  |  Backyard Naturalists  |   Meet Your Neighbours


Nature Center

Highlands Nature Center was founded as the museum of the Highlands Biological Station in 1927, and was originally housed as an annex to the Hudson Library. Its present home, the Clark Foreman Museum building, was constructed between 1939 and 1941 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) using native granite from the local quarry and wormy chestnut salvaged from the Nantahala National Forest. Following a renovation in 2001, the Nature Center now offers exhibits and year-round educational programming focusing on the biodiversity of the southern Appalachian region. Programming includes pre-K through 12 outreach, special events and daily activities during the summer that are open to the general public, and summer nature camps for kids ages 4 to 14. Younger campers explore the outdoors and learn about plants and animals through a variety of activities and games. Older campers conduct scientific research, develop team-building skills, and observe nature on adventure field trips into the Nantahala National Forest.

Links: more information about Highlands Nature Center


Botanical Garden

The Highlands Botanical Garden was established in 1962 as a refuge and demonstration garden for the diverse flora of the Southern Appalachians and its unique communities.  Nearly 500 species of mosses, ferns, wildflowers, shrubs and trees flourish in natural forest, wetlands, and old-growth plant communities connected by a series of trails and boardwalks.  Several unique demonstration gardens display collections: Native Azaleas, Plants of the Cherokee, Mosses and Liverworts, Wildflower Meadow, Butterfly Garden, and Rock Outcrop species.

The Botanical Garden is free and open to the public year-round from sunrise to sunset.  Support comes from Highlands Biological Foundation memberships and donations.

Links: more information about the Botanical Garden


About the Highlands Area

Historically, HBS has been intimately tied to the small town of Highlands, North Carolina which is unique in many ways. It was founded as a summer resort in the 1870s and has always attracted an exceptionally upscale and well-educated class of citizens. Highlands boasts the first public library in North Carolina, the first land trust in the state, and rich cultural opportunities (e.g., a summer playhouse, a visual arts center, a chamber music series). The location of the Station within the town limits puts shops and restaurants within easy walking distance, and the community is very proud of the Station and helps to support its programs.

Highlands and its immediate surroundings are arguably the most biologically significant area in the Appalachian Mountains. The Station is located near the crest of the Blue Ridge on a high plateau at an elevation of 4,000 feet (1,200 m); the town lies just west of the main drainage divide of the eastern part of the continent. Surrounding peaks on the Blue Ridge exceed 5,000 feet (1,500 m) in elevation. The Cowee Mountains lie to the north, and beyond them lie the Balsams. To the northwest are the Great Smoky Mountains, with the Nantahalas to the west, across the Little Tennessee Valley. South and southeast of the Highlands Plateau is a series of river gorges, with some of the highest waterfalls in eastern North America. These rivers include the Toxaway, Horsepasture, Thompson, Whitewater, and Chattooga. The latter has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River and flows through the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area a short distance south of the Station. Much of the land in the vicinity of Highlands is part of the Nantahala National Forest. Sections of the Pisgah, Chattahoochee (Georgia), and Sumter (South Carolina) National Forests are nearby.

The Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, a USDA Forest Service research facility, is about 18 miles west of HBS. Its 2,185-hectare landbase is frequently used by HBS researchers, and cooperation between the two research stations has been ed in recent years. Researchers at HBS have been funded to participate in the All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) in Great Smokey Mountains National Park, as well as in surveys of the new Gorges State Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, all of which are close enough for day field trips.

The Highlands area is characterized by relatively mild temperatures, with summers being especially pleasant, as daily maxima rarely exceed 80º F (27º C). Precipitation is higher than at any other site in eastern North America, averaging 80-100 inches (2,000-2,500 mm) annually. The location of the Station near the southern edge of the Blue Ridge affords easy access to a great variety of plant communities over a gradient in elevation of 6,000 feet (1,800 m), extending from oak-pine and bottomland hardwood forests of the Piedmont, mesophytic cove forests of the Appalachian slopes, and grass and heath balds and spruce-fir forests on the summits of the higher peaks. The area is renowned for the diversity of its plant and animal life, as documented in an article in BioScience (Ricketts et al., 1999), and few regions outside the tropics offer such opportunities as the southern Blue Ridge for analytical and experimental work in ecology, systematics, and evolution.