The Biological Station

A Short History

The Highlands Biological Station (HBS) 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 beginning in 2001 and again in 2012.

In the mid-1970s The Station 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.

The Foundation is governed by a 32-member Board of Trustees consisting of academics and members of the Highlands community. Its mission is to raise 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 28 regional colleges and universities), and fundraising.

Highlands Biological Station realizes its mission of education and research broadly through (1) support of scientific research and graduate training, (2) Station-sponsored field-centered courses and hosting visiting academic groups, and (3) diverse outreach programming for regional K-12 schools and the local community and life-long-learners. 

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.

Funding for Research

The Foundation offers grants-in-aid-of-research to pre-doctoral and postdoctoral students and researchers.

Summer Courses and Workshops

We offer intensive course and workshops in the field of biology every summer. The Station offers several courses at the advanced undergraduate/graduate level dealing with the ­special biological features of the southern Appalachians and with areas of study that are appropriate for investigation at a mountain field station.The Highlands Biological Foundation offers limited financial aid, typically a subsidy of up to one-half of the course fee, available to no more than two qualified students per course.