Zahner Conservation Lectures

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.


June 19  Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America

Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin, Professor, University of Louisville

In his popular book, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin recounts natural history in early America. After the Revolutionary War, Europeans viewed America as degenerate. The American flora and fauna, including Americans themselves, were thought weaker and feebler than their European counterparts. Providing scientific justification for this school of thought was Naturalist and French Count Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a scientific giant in his day. Thomas Jefferson worked tirelessly to prove Europeans wrong, and was convinced that the sight of an American moose would change Buffon’s mind. Jefferson claimed that the American moose was such a giant that it could stand over a European reindeer. He made this ungulate the cornerstone of his defense, even going so far as to ship the remains of a seven-foot moose to Buffon in Paris.

Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin is a Professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at The University of Louisville. His main area of research interest is the evolution of social behavior, and he and his lab are studying the evolution of cooperation, aggression, antibiotic resistance, and risk-taking behavior. Dugatkin has an obvious passion for writing. He contributes to magazines, has penned over 150 articles on evolution and behavior in such journals as Nature, and authored two textbooks. His popular books include Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose (The University of Chicago Press, 2009) and The Prince of Evolution (2011). For more information about Lee Alan Dugatkin and his work, visit www.leedugatkin.com.


June 26  Nest Association in North American Minnows: A Colorful Conundrum

Dr. Mollie Cashner, Research Scientist, Austin Peay State University

North American fishes are diverse, and a number of species play a large role in our lives. Minnows, however, are often overlooked and ignored, except when considered a potential food source for larger, more charismatic species. Yet there is actually intense beauty and complexity among these fishes. Dr. Mollie Cashner has been studying the reproductive strategy of nest association, when up to seven species of minnows share a large nest that was built by another species. In addition to the amazing diversity of fishes that use these sites to spawn, nearly all of the associate species display a striking aquatic show of red nuptial coloration. This display can make it appear as though a fire is blazing beneath the water’s surface. Dr. Cashner will discuss the diversity in nest associates, nest types, and the numerous questions around this fascinating phenomenon.

Dr. Mollie Cashner is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her research focus is on the evolution of reproductive behavior, phylogenetics, and population genetics of North American fishes. She received her Ph.D. from Tulane University in 2010 investigating the evolution of nest association in North American minnows, and is currently working on a number of behavioral and population genetics projects with native North American fishes. She has been involved with the Highlands Biological Station for nearly 10 years.


July 3  Temperate Mountain Grasslands: A Climate-Herbivore Hypothesis for Origins and Persistence

Prof. Travis Knowles, Associate Professor, Francis Marion University 

Travis Knowles is an Associate Professor of Biology at Francis Marion University, and Director of Wildsumaco Biological Station in Ecuador. He has spent many years working on the grass bald ecosystems of the southern Appalachians, which have long evaded satisfactory scientific explanation. In this lecture, he will discuss his most recent paper, coauthored with Peter Weigl of Wake Forest University, on a newly expanded climate-herbivore hypothesis for the origin and persistence of temperate montane grasslands throughout the northern hemisphere. Implications for conservation policy, and the controversial concept of “re-wilding” using native herbivores, will also be part of the presentation. Professor Knowles teaches classes in vertebrate zoology, conservation biology, and tropical ecology, the latter on the east Andes slope in Ecuador.


July 10  Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail

Mr. Jay Erskine Leutze, Author (Sponsored by the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust)

Jay Erskine Leutze was raised in Chapel Hill, NC, and lives in the Southern Appalachian Mountains on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Trained as an attorney, he has become a leading voice for state and federal conservation funding for investment in public lands. He is a Trustee for Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, one of the nation’s most established land trusts. He is the author of Stand Up that Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail. In the tradition of A Civil Action, it’s the compelling true story of a North Carolina outdoorsman who teams up with his Appalachian “mountain people” neighbors to save a treasured landscape from being destroyed.

Leutze has testified before Congress on the need for increased federal conservation funding. He is a national spokesman for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He is also frequently asked to be a guest lecturer on conservation. This year he will lecture and teach at Sewanee, Davidson College, and North Carolina State University. He will also appear at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In 2012, he was awarded North Carolina’s civilian honor, “The Order of the Longleaf Pine,” for his contribution to the conservation of his native state. He is the winner of the 2013 “Governor’s Conservation Communicator of the Year Award.”

Stand Up That Mountain has won numerous awards, including The Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was named the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) Nonfiction Book of the Year. The American Bar Association honored the book at its Silver Gavel Awards dinner in July 2013, citing it as “a work of art that has added to the public’s understanding of the law.”


July 17  The Art and Science of Botanical Gardens: Connecting People to Science and Nature

Ms. Mary Pat Matheson, President & Chief Executive Officer, Atlanta Botanical Garden

Mary Pat Matheson, the Anna and Hays Mershon President and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, will talk about the role of botanical gardens in connecting people to science and nature. Through creative programs, exhibitions and events targeted at specific audiences, the Atlanta Botanical Garden has gone from less than 200,000 visitors to over 500,000 in less than a decade during her tenure. As a part of this growth, the garden has connected visitors to the art of horticulture, conservation research and the rich diversity of plants worldwide. Through “stealth education” visitors are engaged by staff and volunteers and leave with an awe of the natural world.

Matheson was named one of “14 Women of Excellence” by Business to Business magazine and one of “25 Power Women to Watch” by Atlanta Woman magazine in January 2006. In 2005, the American Horticultural Society named her the “2005 Professional of the Year”; and Public Broadcasting Atlanta awarded her the “Lexus Leader of the Arts.” The American Public Garden association bestowed its professional service award on Matheson in 2010. Locally, she serves on the executive committee and board of the Midtown Alliance, The American Horticultural Society and the International Women’s Forum, Georgia. She also serves on the board of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, and is a member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta and is a graduate of the Leadership Atlanta 2006 class.


July 24  Native Plants of the Southeast and their Garden Uses

Dr. Larry Mellichamp, Professor; Executive Director, UNC-Charlotte Botanical Gardens; Author

Many popular foreign landscape plants, such as Japanese hollies, Chinese junipers, English ivies and European Euonymus have been tough and useful foundation plants for our gardens and yards for centuries, despite requiring constant pruning. However, native species are beautiful, adaptable, confer a sense of place, and help feed native insects and birds. Majestic bigleaf magnolias make a bold landscape statement, and other species are great for wildlife: colorful Indian-pinks is great for hummingbirds, mountain mint for honeybees, Dutchman’s-pipe vine for caterpillars, and Joe-pye weed for swarms of butterflies. The choices are endless, and Larry will show you some of the more unusual Southeastern natives that you can grow. If you have any trouble spots in your yard, bring specific information (photos, specimens, drawings) for Larry to speak with you personally about possible solutions.

Dr. Larry Mellichamp is a Professor of Botany and Horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he has taught for over 38 years. He is also director of the university’s Botanical Gardens. Larry is an expert on native trees and shrubs, and also studies carnivorous plants. He has written many technical and popular articles on plants and gardening, and has co-authored five books, including “The Winter Garden” (1997); “Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region” (1999); “Bizarre Botanicals” with Paula Gross (2010), and most recently (2014), “Native Plants of the Southeast (and their garden uses)”. He has traveled extensively in the eastern United States and across the continent, and has made trips to photograph unusual plants in Costa Rica, South Africa, Borneo, southern Europe, China, and Australia.


July 31  Soul Mates for Life: Native Plants and their Fungal Partners

Mr. Tradd Cotter, Co-founder, Mushroom Mountain

In order to sustain life on this planet, a complex matrix of organisms has evolved to orchestrate the balance. Our very existence relies on the bonds between them. Plants and fungi have merged and performed sacred vows, and continue to unveil their brilliance and benefits of collaborating with nature. We have a lot to learn from these relationships, and understanding the respect they have for each other can teach us more than just soil biology: they can help us speak their language. Our native plant communities are communicating through their own internet, reaching out to other organisms to help repair the ecosystems that perpetuate life on this planet.

Tradd Cotter is a research microbiologist, professional mycologist, and organic gardener, who has been tissue culturing, collecting native fungi in the Southeast, and cultivating both commercially and experimentally for more than twenty-two years. His first major publication is Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation, published by Chelsea Green with a release date of August 2014.

In 1996, he founded Mushroom Mountain, which he owns and operates with his wife, Olga, to explore applications for mushrooms in various industries, and currently maintains over 200 species of fungi for food production, mycoremediation of environmental pollutants, and natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. His primary interest is in low-tech and no-tech cultivation strategies so that anyone can grow mushrooms on just about anything, anywhere in the world. Mushroom Mountain is currently expanding to 42,000 square feet of laboratory and research space near Greenville, South Carolina, to accommodate commercial production, as well as mycoremediation projects.


Aug. 7  Swamp Monsters and Bone-Eating Snot Flowers: Poetry and the Nonhuman World

Dr. Catherine Carter, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University 

Dr. Carter will talk about the different ways in which poets engage with and represent the nonhuman world. Her own outlook has been described as witty, frank, and imaginative. She will share some of her favorite environmental poems, including some of her own, while the audience reads along. Her imagination and lighthearted approach will make for an evening that skeptics and poetry lovers alike can enjoy.

Born on the eastern shore of Maryland and raised there by wolves and vultures, Catherine Carter now lives with her husband in Cullowhee, near Western Carolina University, where she teaches in and coordinates the English education program. Her latest book (LSU, 2012) is The Swamp Monster at Home; her first full-length collection, The Memory of Gills (LSU, 2006) received the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. Her poem “Toast” won the 2009 North Carolina Writer’s Network Randall Jarrell award and her poem “Woolly Adelgid” won the poetry award for Still:  The Journal in Fall 2013. Her work has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, North Carolina Literary Review, and Ploughshares, among others


Aug. 14  Cliff-Face Ecology in the Southern Appalachians

Dr. Gary Walker, Professor, Appalachian State University 

Gary Walker is a forest ecologist in the Department of Biology at Appalachian State University where he teaches a course on the biogeography of the southern Appalachians. He has been working in the southern Appalachians since 1978 and has conducted research in Nepal and the People’s Republic of China. Dr. Walker began working in cliff systems in the southern Appalachians in 1982. During the course of that research, he and his graduate students have discovered entire boreal plant communities as glacial relicts on cliff faces, species of organisms previously unknown to science and ancient forests with trees in excess of 1,000 years of age in these unique habitats. He will speak on the various research projects he and his graduate students have investigated in cliff ecosystems in the Blue Ridge, the Ridge and Valley and the Cumberland Plateau physiographic regions in the southern Appalachians.


Aug. 21  Wild Pigs: America’s Growing Invasive Crisis

Dr. Jack Mayer, Manager, Environmental Sciences, Savannah River National Laboratory

Dr. Jack Mayer received both his B.A. in biology and Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Connecticut. He is currently a research scientist and manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. Dr. Mayer has been conducting research on wild pigs for over 41 years. Although mostly focused on morphological work, his research on wild pigs has also included work in the areas of systematics, behavior, population biology, reproductive biology, damage/impacts, and management/control techniques. He is the senior author of “Wild Pigs in the United States.”  Dr. Mayer’s work with wild pigs has spanned three continents and included over 20,000 specimens examined/measured. He was also one of the National Geographic Society team of scientists who unearthed and examined the legendary, or perhaps infamous, “Hogzilla.”

Having been reported in 47 of the 50 states and estimated to number as many as six million animals nationally, non-native wild pigs are rapidly becoming America’s worst invasive species nightmare. This talk will cover the history of this crisis as well as a review of the billions of dollars in damage that these animals cause to both the human and natural environments in this country annually. Unfortunately, at present we do not have the management tools necessary to enable us to control this current situation. This crisis has been described as our country’s greatest emerging wildlife management challenge of the 21st Century.


Aug. 28  Amazonian Naturalists, Artists, and the Idea of the Tropics

Dr. William Kimler, Associate Professor, NC State University

The enduring image of a luxuriant tropics that would serve as a rich resource for exploitation lasted from the early days of European exploration until quite recent reevaluation of the fragility of tropical ecosystems. The idea of the Amazonian tropics arose from the travels, research, and popular writings of famous naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Henry Walter Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace, and a host of others. Their tropical experiences created new sources to fire the popular imagination. Naturalists added scientific credibility. Less noticed are the emotional and intellectual impact of works produced by artists traveling in the footsteps of the naturalists, and the role of collections and museums in shaping an image of rich abundance and promise. In this lecture, Dr. William Kimler will explore the power of the visual image on both popular and scientific understanding.

Dr. William Kimler is an Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor and an Associate Professor of History of Biology at North Carolina State University. He also directs the Thomas Jefferson Scholars, a group of biological or agricultural sciences students who earn a simultaneous degree in a humanistic discipline. His teaching is in the history of science, with particular emphasis on the history of Darwinism and, more broadly, the major ideas in modern biology. He also co-teaches an animal behavior summer field course for Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab. Originally trained as a biologist, he worked as a field ecologist in industry before his doctoral work. He received his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Cornell University, working on the history of debates about Darwinian explanations. His enduring research interests have been the intersection of natural history, ecology, behavior, and genetics, focused on how ideas about evidence and explanation develop in new interdisciplinary ways.


Sept. 4  The Force of Admiration: Wallace & Darwin on the Evolutionary Trail

Dr. Jim Costa, Executive Director, Highlands Biological Station; Author

Alfred Russel Wallace was the last of the great Victorian naturalists, and by the end of his long life in 1913 he was also one of the most famous scientists in the world, lauded by leading learned societies, British royalty and U.S. Presidents alike. Against all odds — lacking wealth, formal education, social standing or connections — Wallace became the pre-eminent tropical naturalist of his day. He founded one entirely new discipline — evolutionary biogeography — and, with Darwin, co-founded another: evolutionary biology. Yet today Darwin’s name is universally recognised, while Wallace is all but unknown. Jim Costa traces the independent development of Wallace’s and Darwin’s evolutionary insights, exploring the fascinating parallels, intersections and departures in their thinking. Drawing on Wallace’s ‘Species Notebook’ — the most important of Wallace’s field notebooks kept during his southeast Asian explorations of the 1850s, Costa puts Wallace’s thinking into a new light in relation to that of his more illustrious colleague. He also examines the ups and downs of Wallace’s relationship with Darwin, and critically evaluates the misleading ‘conspiracy theories’ that Wallace was wronged by Darwin and his circle over credit for the discovery of natural selection. Tracing the arc of Wallace’s reputation from meteoric rise in the 19th century to virtual eclipse in the 20th, Costa restores Wallace to his proper place in the limelight with Darwin.

Jim Costa is Executive Director of the Highlands Biological Station in Highlands, N.C., and Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. His research ranges from insect social behavior to the history of evolutionary thinking. As a recent fellow-in-residence at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Germany, Jim completed two books on the remarkable naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. On the Organic Law of Change (Harvard, 2013) is an annotated transcription of the most important field notebook kept by Wallace during his explorations in southeast Asia, providing new insights into the development of Wallace’s evolutionary thinking in the 1850s. In the companion volume Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species (Harvard, 2014) Jim analyzes Wallace’s ideas and arguments about evolution in the notebook period in comparison with those of Darwin, and examines the relationship between these two giants of evolutionary biology.