What Makes Highlands so Unique?
Historically, HBS has been intimately tied to the small town of Highlands, North Carolina which is unique in many ways. 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. We are close to several mountain ranges, including Cowee, Balsam, Great Smoky Mountains, and the Nantahala. 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. 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 also nearby.
The Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, a USDA Forest Service research facility, is about 18 miles west of HBS. Its 2,185-hectare
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.
Biodiversity of Highlands
The southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate world. Biodiversity is extremely high in terms of both the variety of different species and the abundance of each species. Nearly 10,000 species are already known to exist here, with more discovered each year–some of which are new to science!
Some kinds of organisms, such as salamanders and fungi, reach their highest levels of diversity in the Southern Appalachians. Other diverse groups include trees, mosses, millipedes, spiders, moths, beetles, and snails. Many of these species are endemic to this region, found here and nowhere else in the world.
Northern relic species contribute to the biodiversity of the region. Animals such the pygmy shrew, red squirrel, and saw-whet owl, as well as plants such as skunk cabbage and ground juniper, can persist well south of their main range along the cool, moist, high elevation forests of the Southern Appalachians.
Why do we have so much biodiversity?
Ice Age Glaciers: During the Pleistocene Epoch (about 11,000 years ago), much of North America was covered by ice. Northern species that were forced southward by advancing glaciers found refuge in the Southern Appalachians. When the glaciers finally retreated, many of these species remained.
Topography: A wide range in elevation mimics changes in latitude, only over a shorter geographic distance. This results in an overlap of southern and northern species. Deep river gorges provide comparatively stable microclimates for many species. Isolated mountain peaks may serve as habitat islands, and result in genetic diversification of species.
Climate: Temperatures in the region are cool and mild, with a mean annual low of 40° F and a high of 61° F. The Highlands Plateau has an average annual rainfall of more than 87 inches, but occasionally receives more than 100 inches, which qualifies it as a temperate rainforest.
Arachnids (spiders, ticks, and mites): More than 460 different species have been observed in the Southern Appalachians, but as many as 800 are believed to exist.
Mollusks: Over 100 species of mollusks are known from the Southern Appalachians. The majority of these species are land snails.
Millipedes: The moist leaf litter and rich soils of the forest floor provide ideal habitats for a variety of millipede species. Millipedes reach record diversity in the Southern Appalachians with over 230 different species known to exist.
Plants: More than 100 native trees, 1,400 other flowering plants, and 500 moss and fern species are found in the Southern Appalachians. Nearly 60 kinds of trees and shrubs may grow in diverse cove hardwood forests. Spruce-fir forests occur at elevations above 5000 feet, northern hardwood and pine-oak forests occur at lower elevations, and hemlock forests occupy moist, streamside habitats.
Fungi: The southern Appalachian Mountains are also famous for their high diversity of fungi. Mushrooms, molds, and sac fungi thrive in the wet mountain environments. Nearly 2,300 species have already been identified, but scientists estimate that there may be as many as 20,000.
More species of salamanders exist in the southern Appalachian Mountains than anywhere else in the world, and nowhere are they more abundant. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone has 30 species, and many more occur in other parts of western North Carolina. Several classic studies of salamanders have been conducted here at the Highlands Biological Station.
Physiology: Most Southern Appalachian salamanders lack lungs and respire through their skin. Consequently, individuals must keep moist to avoid desiccation. The region’s cool, wet climate provides an ideal environment for the survival of these amphibians.
Habitats: Salamanders need cool, wet environments in which to live and reproduce. The southern Appalachian Mountains are frequently blanketed in fog. Forests have numerous seeps and streams. Moist forest floor leaf litter and rotten logs provide ideal microclimates for many salamander species and their invertebrate prey.
Communities: Salamander species are often separated into finely divided niches to reduce competition and predation. Habitat segregation is usually determined by body size. For example, a streamside community frequently consists of a large aquatic species, a medium semi-aquatic species, and a smaller terrestrial species.
Bumblebees on the Highlands Plateau
North America is home to approximately 4,000 species of native bees, each with different behaviors and a beauty all of their own. These bees are responsible for the pollination of some of our largest food crops, such as tomatoes or blueberries, but these are the bees we are losing. Some recent studies seem to indicate that honeybee numbers are increasing while some of our native pollinators, like the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, are truly threatened.
Bumblebees are an incredibly important type of bee because of the way they pollinate flowers. They are the only pollinator capable of buzz pollinating, which is vital for many of our favorite fruits and vegetables.
Buzz pollinating occurs when a bumblebee latches onto the pollen producing part of the flower using her jaws and vibrates the muscles responsible for flight. These vibrations cause the pollen locked deep inside the anthers to dislodge and stick to the bee, which then gets carried to the next plant. This is essential for plants like tomatoes, peppers, and cranberries, which would not be able to reproduce if it were not for buzz pollination.
There are also many kinds of bumblebees you may recognize when you step outside. The most well known species in the Highlands area are the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis), half-black bumblebee (Bombus vagans), American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus), tri-colored bumblebee (Bombus ternarius), two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus), yellow-banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola), and most famously, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis).
Including native plant species in your garden can help to create a refuge for native pollinators in search for food, and leaving a few small brush piles can provide shelter to these species we all love so much. By creating a landscape with a diversity of blooms and bloom times, you can help feed these species throughout the growing season. Another way you can help is to minimize your use of pesticides and keep your brush piles year round. As messy as they may look, pollinators rely on these piles for shelter during the cooler months. Below is a list of plants that grow well and look beautiful up here in Highlands while also providing food sources for our beloved bees.
These happy workers and busy bees need protection. Pesticides, overgrazing, climate change, and new diseases are putting many of these species on the endangered list, and bees have a difficult enough life cycle without these problems.
Bumblebees are one of the few pollinator species that have a symbiotic relationship with plants: they get to drink as much nectar as they please, but they also help the flower reproduce. Some species only take the nectar – bumblebees help bring about a new generation. So, not only would we lose our friends, but we could also lose some of our favorite flowers. For more information on what you can do to help, visit www.xerces.org.