Since its founding in 1927, the Highlands Biological Station has had a wider scope than research alone. A quote from Ralph Sargent’s book “Biology in the Blue Ridge” (1977) summarizes this idea nicely – “[The Highlands Biological Station] has sought to interest local residents, visitors, and the general public in the full natural and cultural history of the region and to bring to them awareness of and care for the whole environment, physical, biological, and human of the southern mountains.” One of the Station’s most enduring avenues for spreading this interest has been the tradition of weekly summer lectures. Every summer the Highlands Nature Center hosts evening lectures on Thursdays focused on the theme of natural history and conservation, a tradition that began in the 1930s. Today, these lectures are known as the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series. Named for the significant contributions of Dr. Robert Zahner and his wife Glenda, of Highlands, to land conservation efforts on the Highlands Plateau, the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series serves to educate and inspire the public through a series of talks from well-known regional scientists, conservationists, artists, and writers. The series is made possible by the Highlands Biological Foundation, and from donations from numerous individuals and local organizations. The public is invited to participate in these free lectures, which will be held each Thursday evening at 6:30pm at the Highlands Nature Center at 930 Horse Cove Road in Highlands.

All lectures are held at 6:30pm at the Highlands Nature Center. These lectures are free and open to the public.

Photo (c) Clay Bolt.


July 2   

Turning the Poet Out of Doors: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Poetry of Robert Frost

Dr. Peter White, Professor, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

It is not a surprise that Robert Frost wrote about the natural landscape of New England—but what is a surprise, and will be presented in this talk, is that he was an accurate and detailed observer from a scientific point of view and actively sought to understand the names of species and the ecological and evolutionary themes around him. What other poet would observe and write a poem about a white spider that doesn’t spin a web lurking, hidden, on white petals of a normally blue wildflower, to intercept a white moth? Attend this lecture to hear about the science behind Frost’s eloquent poems. Some readers will know that this popular talk, now given many times to many audiences, was first developed for the Zahner Lecture series over 10 years ago.

Peter White received a BA from Bennington College and a PhD from Dartmouth College. His professional career has included positions as a postdoctoral fellowship at the Missouri Botanical Garden, as a Research Biologist with the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and as the director of the Cooperative Park Studies Unit at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986 to the position of professor in Biology and director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, an ecology, evolution, and conservation-focused garden. He guided the Garden for 28 years, a period of expansion and development, before becoming a full time faculty member in 2015. Peter is the author of papers on diverse ecological and conservation topics. Among his awards are a First Prize for Natural History Book from the National Park Service (for Wildflowers of the Smokies), the Award of Excellence from the National Garden Clubs, an Outstanding Southerner from Southern Living Magazine, the Center for Plant Conservation’s STAR Award, the Order of the Long Leaf from the North Carolina’s Governor’s Office, the Pretzlaff Conservation Award, and the Graham Award for faculty service for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


July 9

Coyotes: From the Wilderness to the Mean Streets

Dr. Chris Mowry, Associate Professor, Berry College

What do coyotes eat? How large are their territories? What are their movement patterns? How can humans coexist with them? These are just a few of the questions that Dr. Chris Mowry of Berry College, and Dr. Larry Wilson of Emory University, hope to address through their efforts with the Atlanta Coyote Project. The project was founded in response to the rising number of coyote sightings and incidents in the southeast, and a growing interest on Mowry and Wilson’s part in how coyotes survive in urban environments.

Chris Mowry is an Associate Professor of Biology at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. He earned his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and his Ph.D. from Emory University. His research focuses on animal ecology, and he has been studying coyotes for the past 10 years. This talk will focus on changes in the feeding ecology of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park following wolf reintroduction, melanism (black coat coloration) in coyotes, as well as the newly launched Atlanta Coyote Project, which is looking at coyote biology and human-coyote interactions in urban areas.

Mowry is well acquainted with Highlands: he studied under Dr. Don Shure, a long-time resident of Highlands and board member of the Highlands Biological Foundation and Highlands Plateau Audubon Society. Chris himself has also served on the Biological Station’s Board of Scientific Advisors for the past 18 years. His wife, Lisa Kline Mowry, is descended from the Pikelsimer’s of Whiteside Cove. Opal was her grandmother and Tom her uncle, both of whom were characters known to many long-time Highlands residents. Lisa is an editor for Better Homes & Gardens magazine and has produced a number of articles on residences in Highlands.


July 16  

4,000 Reasons to Love (and Protect) Native Bees

Mr. Clay Bolt, Natural History & Conservation Photographer

Over the past 10 years, we’ve heard a lot about the shocking disappearance of honeybees. We rely heavily on this non-native insect for the protection of many of our favorite foods. However, North America is home to approximately 4,000 species of native bees that are also incredibly effective pollinators with incredible behavior and extraordinary beauty all of their own. Unfortunately, several native species such as the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee are truly threatened while some studies seem to indicate that honeybee numbers are actually increasing. In 2014, natural history photographer Clay Bolt set out on an adventure to meet, photograph and tell the stories of these beautiful, beneficial insects. During this engaging presentation, Clay will share some of his favorite images, stories and solutions for native bee conservation. One thing is for certain: you’ll never look at bees the same way ever again!

Clay Bolt is a Natural History and Conservation Photographer specializing in macro and close-up photography of Southern Appalachian biodiversity, with an emphasis on invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. He regularly works with organizations and publications such as National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation and many others. He is an Associate Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and co-founder (2009) of the international nature and biodiversity photography project “Meet Your Neighbours” ( Clay’s current major focus is on North America’s native bees and the important roles that they play in our lives. He is passionate about spreading the message that a connection to nature begins at home and is always seeking out new ways to promote this concept through his photography, writing, presentations and community involvement. Visit to learn more.


July 23     

White-Nose Syndrome and Bats: The Current Status of this Wildlife Health Crisis

Ms. Susan Cameron, Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

White-nose syndrome, an emergent disease caused by a newly discovered and introduced fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans), has decimated populations of cave dwelling bats in eastern North America. The disease is currently impacting bats in 25 states and five Canadian provinces, and is firmly established in the Southern Appalachians. Agencies, universities, organizations and private individuals are working together in a highly coordinated effort to combat the disease. As part of this effort, conservation partners are investigating the source, spread and cause of bat deaths associated with white-nose syndrome and working to develop management strategies to minimize disease impacts. This talk will provide an overview on the status of our knowledge on white-nose syndrome, its impacts on bat populations and the outlook for the future. It will also provide information on bats and their ecological roles, why we should all be concerned about this devastating disease, and what we can do to help.

Sue Cameron is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Asheville Ecological Services Office where she works on terrestrial species of the southern Appalachian Mountains including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Her primary duties entail working with partners to recover federally listed species and assisting with state and national efforts to address white-nose syndrome. Sue received a Bachelor’s degree from Florida Institute of Technology in Marine Biology (1994) and Master’s degree in Environmental Management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University (1999). Prior to starting with the Service, Sue worked for NC Wildlife Resources Commission as a coastal waterbird biologist and Virginia Tech as a red-cockaded woodpecker biologist.


July 30                       

Stories from the Forested Landscape: How to see the forest with the trees

Dr. Stephanie Jeffries, Teaching Associate Professor, North Carolina State University

Why is spruce-fir forest missing from some mountaintops? What created grassy balds? Is the northern hardwood forest even a real natural community? Ecologists Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth will take you on a journey to hear stories about the fascinating forests that cloak the southern Appalachians around Highlands. Along the way, you’ll discover that you, too, can see the forest with the trees. Steph will be available to sign copies of their recently published book, “Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia,” following the talk.

Steph Jeffries is a naturalist at heart and a forest ecologist by training. Currently a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State University, she also serves on the faculty at the NC Botanical Garden. She has a Ph.D. in Forestry from NC State University and a B.S. in marine science from University of South Carolina.


Aug. 6  

Waterfalls & Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians

Dr. Timothy P. Spira, Professor, Clemson University

Waterfalls are natural magnets for hikers, photographers, nature enthusiasts, and casual visitors to the mountains. Some waterfalls enchant us with their softness as water gently glides over bedrock; others impress us with the height of their falling water; still others awe us with their power. The constantly falling water, sparkling light, and swirling spray is exhilarating, soothing, and inspiring. For whatever reason, waterfalls make us feel good. Exploring wildflowers (and other natural features) along the trail adds another layer of fun. Tim will discuss the lure of waterfalls and wildflowers in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Timothy P. Spira is an avid hiker, wildflower enthusiast, and emeritus professor of botany at Clemson University. He is the author of Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. Tim’s new book is Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes (University of North Carolina Press).


Aug. 13  

Pheromones, Mating Behavior and the Biomedical Relevance of Salamander Research

Dr. Richard (Rick) Feldhoff, Professor, University of Louisville

Somehow, in the middle of the night, in a dark/damp forest, on the top of a mountain in Western NC, a male and female salamander find each other, establish that they have a mutual (species-specific) reproductive interest, and initiate a mating ritual that has proven to be amazingly successful for many millions of years. During this lengthy and bizarre courtship, a male Plethodon shermani (Red-legged) salamander may engage in “nose-tapping” and “foot-dancing” behavior to entice the female to straddle his undulating tail and slowly move forward with him in a “tail-straddling walk”. Typically, the male will intermittently stop to turn back and deliver protein pheromones from a chin gland to the female’s nares. The female will instinctively raise her head to receive the pheromone mixture. Through their research, Rick and his colleagues have shown that following binding of the non-volatile, proteinaceous pheromones to receptors in her nasal olfactory organ, areas of the brain associated with sexual behavior are stimulated and female mating receptivity increases. Though a bit of serendipity was involved, they have become part of the leading interdisciplinary research team in this intriguing “Molecules to Mating Behavior” area. Rick will discuss some of the key biological, evolutionary, and biochemical findings and implications.

Dr. Rick Feldhoff is a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine at the University of Louisville (UofL). For nearly 25 years, he and his spouse, Dr. Pam Feldhoff, have maintained a productive interdisciplinary research collaboration (and personal friendship) with another spousal team – Drs. Lynne Houck and Stevan Arnold at Oregon State University (OSU) – characterizing and determining the effects of courtship pheromones on reproductive behavior in Plethodontid salamanders. Their collaborative research has been dependent upon their annual August field season at the Highlands Biological Station (HBS), the efforts of many outstanding students, and support from HBS, UofL and the National Science Foundation. The Feldhoff laboratory at UofL has utilized state-of-the art techniques in biochemistry and molecular biology to help complement the biological, behavioral and evolutionary strengths at OSU.


Aug. 20

Energy Literacy and How “Fracking” (High Volume Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing) Fits In, North Carolina and Beyond

Dr. Cheryl Waters-Tormey, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University

Becoming more “literate” about how and where our energy comes from makes us better equipped to understand geologic, economic, and geo-political factors behind national and state-level decisions regarding energy resources and related environmental protections. Hydraulic fracturing (or, the high volume slick water hydraulic fracturing used in “tight” reservoir rocks) is one of several intensive, higher-risk, oil and gas extraction methods. These methods are in use because of the high domestic and global demand for these fuels. The need for and application of these methods varies in scale, benefit and risk depending on the geologic setting. Dr. Waters-Tormey will begin her talk with a fact-based energy literacy crash course, then contrast the geology of restricted basin reservoir settings in North Carolina with sedimentary rock unit reservoirs such as those in the Appalachian Basin in the northeastern US, and conclude with a discussion driven by questions the audience wishes to pose.


Aug. 27      

Though Small, We Pack Quite a Wallop: The Saga of Small Mammals and the Environment

Dr. Edward Pivorun, Professor, Clemson University

Although most people consider “rats” and “mice” vermin and have never seen or heard of a wild shrew, the small mammal faunas in the forests, fields, wetlands and even deserts play an important and even an essential role in maintaining robust and stabile ecosystems. Voles, not moles, aid in the distribution and maintenance of fungal spores that produce underground fungi that are essential for the well being of many herbaceous and woody plants. Small mammals aid in the dispersal of seeds or can deplete the seed bank of species and inhibit the regrowth of seedlings. Shrews and moles impact the soil invertebrate populations, being voracious consumers of various insect larvae.

Small mammals also serve as models regarding physiological adaptations. The woodland jumping mouse enters hibernation and the deer mouse displays daily torpor. Desert rodents are able to live their whole lives without drinking water because of their efficient kidney systems and a highly efficient nasal countercurrent water recovery system.

Without these small mammals, predators such as fox, coyote, owls and hawks would starve and their production of young would be severely limited. The field-dwelling cotton rat has one of the highest reproductive rates and is extremely important as a food resource.

As important as small mammals are in natural ecosystems, the effects of small mammals on human disease spread cannot be underestimated. As humans housing development encroaches deeper into wooded ecosystems, there is a greater probability of disease spread – such as Lyme disease and Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome – from the wild mammal populations to humans.

Dr Ed Pivorun, a retired professor of Biological Sciences at Clemson University, has taught courses in comparative physiology, mammalogy and tropical biology. Currently he has been teaching the mammal course during the summer at the Highlands Biological Station. He was the primary researcher in Great Smoky Mountains National Park surveying mammal populations for the All Taxa Biological Inventory (ATBI) program. He is the primary author of the book Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains and Southern Appalachian Mountains (iTunes store). He is now involved with the Emmy award-winning SC ETV show Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, where he serves as a photographer, videographer and advisor. He has worked in locations from Barrow Alaska south to Patagonia, Chile, and from California east to the rice plantations and bird rookeries of South Carolina.


Sept. 3

Monarch Butterflies: How we can maintain their remarkable migration

Dr. Alfonso Alonso, Director for Field Programs, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Monarch butterflies in Eastern North America undergo an amazing annual life cycle. With four generations in a year, they utilize milkweed plants during the spring, summer and early autumn, and then migrate and overwinter in Central Mexico for five months. For many years, tremendous efforts have been put in place to protect the forest that monarchs need in Mexico to survive. In 2014, the lowest number of migratory monarchs was recorded. Dr. Alonso will discuss the reasons for this decline and the actions that are needed to maintain their remarkable migration.

Dr. Alfonso Alonso is a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He is passionate about finding how species of plants and animals are distributed in different ecosystems and implementing monitoring programs to assure their persistence. Alfonso’s interest in nature commenced early in his life as he traveled with his parents to different regions within Mexico, his country of origin. His undergraduate degree in biology led him to study the ecology and conservation of monarch butterflies as they overwinter in Mexico. He studied this endangered phenomenon also for his Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Florida.