A Brief History of the Highlands Biological Station
The institution that was to grow into the Highlands Biological Station was established in 1927 as the Highlands Museum Association, initiated by a group of local citizens at the suggestion of Clark Foreman (1902-1977), grandson of the founder of The Atlanta Constitution and a member of the Roosevelt Administration’s Interior Department from 1933 to 1941. (For an autobiographical memoir written by Clark Foreman, click here). Foreman served as the first President of the Association, which opened its museum in a one-room addition to the Hudson Library on July 4th 1928. At the suggestion of Foreman’s friend, the American Museum of Natural History herpetologist Clifford Pope, Foreman and the museum’s governing Board moved to expand the scope of the organization to research, inviting noted UNC Chapel Hill botanist William Chambers Coker and Vanderbilt University zoologist Edwin E. Reinke to consider basing their work in Highlands. Both biologists responded enthusiastically, and the fledgling museum took action to provide research infrastructure.
Located at 35.05N, 83.19W and nearly 4,000 ft (1,220 m) in elevation, the Highlands Plateau is characterized by mild summers, cold winters, and the highest precipitation in eastern North America, averaging 80-100 in (200-250 cm) annually. Its location on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, astride Atlantic and Gulf river drainages, affords ready access to a diversity of plant communities over a nearly 5,000 ft (1,524 m) elevation gradient, extending from the oak-pine and bottomland hardwood forests of the Piedmont, through the mesophytic cove forests and rock outcrop communities of the Appalachian slopes, to the grass and heath balds and spruce-fir forests on the summits of the higher peaks. The Station’s founders may not have realized that few regions outside the tropics offer such opportunities as the southern Blue Ridge for empirical work in ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, but the scientific community soon realized that the Highlands Biological Station provides a research base in the midst of a temperate-zone biodiversity hotspot.
The Highlands Museum and Biological Laboratory, Inc. opened its first research lab in 1931. The Sam T. Weyman Memorial Laboratory (pictured above shortly after construction), designed by Oscar Stonorov with Tucker & Howell, architects, received acclaim as the first example of the International Style of architecture in North Carolina and was often cited as a foremost example of the Modern Movement in the US. Later remodeled as the Station’s dining hall, the Weyman building today little resembles the original design, unfortunately. For over 30 years, however, the Weyman Laboratory was the center of research at HBS, a period in which Station-based research productivity increased dramatically.
In the late 1930s construction began on the Station’s Museum; designed and built by the WPA and opened in 1941, the museum and associated amphitheater was a natural counterpart to the research laboratory embodying the joint research and educational mission of HBS. Officially named for visionary HBS founder Clark Foreman, today the Museum is known informally as the Highlands Nature Center. Among its many public programs, the Nature Center is an important venue for scientists working at the Station to share their research and knowledge with the community at large.
Research activity at HBS snowballed through the 1940s and 1950s; the rich diversity of the region attracted researchers working on many different taxa and ecological systems, which in turn led to growing support from the State of North Carolina and the National Science Foundation. During the tenure of Thelma “Doc” Howell in the 1950s and 1960s, additional research infrastructure was built with the inauguration of a series of intensive field studies of the escarpment river gorges. It was at this time that the main lab at the Station, the William Chambers Coker Laboratory, was completed, along with the first residences at HBS (Howell, Wright, and Deacon Cottages). An Aquatics Laboratory was built soon after, and in 1962 the Highlands Botanical Garden was established, largely on land donated by the Foreman family. Now in its 6th decade, this naturalistic garden has developed into a premier high-elevation native-plant botanical garden prized by casual visitors, researchers, and botany classes alike.
In this period, too, HBS initiated a program of academic summer field courses, and the Grant-in-Aid program supporting research was inaugurated with NSF support. Later supported by the Highlands Biological Foundation, this program has now operated continuously for over 50 years, supporting thousands of research projects and hundreds of graduate theses and dissertations. Research conducted at HBS encompasses biological systems as diverse as the southern mountain region itself: plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, fungi, terrestrial and aquatic ecology, and especially salamanders have been the primary areas of interest, with studies ranging from taxonomy, systematics, ecology and evolution to conservation biology, ecophysiology and ecosystem and community ecology. The southern Appalachian region being a temperate zone hotspot for salamanders, notably the lungless salamander family Plethodontidae, research on this group has been a major research focus over the decades.
In the mid-1970s, shortly after the start of herpetologist Richard C. Bruce’s tenure as director, HBS became an inter-institutional center of the University of North Carolina system, administered on behalf of the university system by nearby Western Carolina University. At that time the original non-profit research laboratory was reorganized administratively into the modern Highlands Biological Station as a university-affiliated academic organization, and the non-profit Highlands Biological Foundation, Inc. was established. By-laws for both were formalized, establishing a Board of Directors for the Station drawn from colleges and universities within and outside of the University of North Carolina system to advise the university on Station policy and governance, and establishing a Board of Trustees for the Foundation. The mission of the Foundation, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, is support of the Station and its programs. (Highlands Biological Foundation, Inc. is a membership organization – Click here to join or make a donation to support of research and education at HBS!) A third Board was established at the reorganization as well: the Board of Scientific Advisors, members of which are drawn from institutions belonging to the HBS consortium. The Board of Scientific Advisors provide advice on facilities and equipment needs, and play a central role in the annual Grants-in-Aid of Research competition, helping vet proposals and advising on funding.
Upon Richard Bruce’s retirement in 1999, botanist Robert Wyatt assumed the directorship, introducing a new instructional and research dimension at HBS in 2001 when the Station partnered with the Carolina Environmental Program (now Institute for the Environment) at UNC-Chapel Hill to offer an fall semester-in-residence program at HBS for undergraduate environmental studies and biology majors. Individual research internships and a group capstone research project are key components of this fully immersive program. Over the years these research projects have ranged from environmental policy and management to conservation and scientific study.
Jim Costa has served as HBS executive director since 2005, implementing a program of infrastructure, facilities, and equipment improvements. With support of NSF, the State of North Carolina, and the HBF, the Station has seen the modernization and expansion of the Bruce Lab, Coker Lab, Aquatics Lab, and Cottages dorms, in addition to the construction of two new outdoor classrooms and a number of demonstration gardens. Sights are next set on renovating the Weyman Building as a focal social space for Station residents and visitors.
2018 was a milestone year when HBS came fully under the umbrella of Western Carolina University in a seamless transition. Designated a multi-campus center of WCU, the Station’s fundamental 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.” — continued to grow. This transition spurred a year-long strategic planning process, taking direction from the program of infrastructure, facilities, equipment, and programming improvements that began in the early 2000s. (View the HBS Strategic Plan.)
HBS has grown to a campus of 24 acres, with 4 residences sleeping up to 52, fully equipped research and teaching labs and classrooms, two outdoor classrooms, a historic WPA-built Nature Center, and a unique native-plant Botanical Garden. Today HBS realizes its educational and research mission broadly through (1) financial and facilities support for scientific research and graduate training, (2) academic courses in diverse areas of field biology, (3) hosting visiting classes and other groups, (4) partnering with local and regional conservation non-profits, and (5) offering diverse outreach programming for regional K-12 schools, the local community, and life-long-learners.
The Station’s rich research legacy is manifested in the lengthy record of scientific papers, graduate theses and dissertations, and research reports stemming from work based at or otherwise facilitated by HBS. The complete HBS database record of research products will eventually be available; for now, research products since 2000 can be viewed here.
Learn More About the History of Highlands Biological Station
The long and rich history of the Highlands Biological Station has been documented in a variety of books, articles, and essays:
Bruce, Richard C. 2017. Lungless in Highlands: A brief history of research and education on plethodontid salamanders at Highlands Biological Station. Herpetological Review 48(3): 576–581. [PDF]
Costa, James T. and Ralph M. Sargent. 2012. 2012. Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide. Highlands, NC: Highlands Biological Foundation, Inc. [Introduction, pp. 2-7]
Costa, James T. 2013. Highlands Biological Station – Our “continuous project.” Essay written at the completion of the 2013 HBS master site plan. [PDF]
Howell, Thelma. 1963. The Highlands Biological Station, Inc. American Zoologist 3(3): 342–343. [PDF]
Sargent, Ralph. 1977. Biology in the Blue Ridge: Fifty years of the Highlands Biological Station, 1927-1977. Highlands, NC: Highlands Biological Foundation.
Shaffner, Randolph P. 2001. Heart of the Blue Ridge Highlands, North Carolina. Highlands, NC: Faraway Publishing. [ch. 17: pp. 343-354]
Woodley, Sarah. K, James T. Costa, and Richard C. Bruce. 2017. Introduction to the Special Highlands Conference on Plethodontid Salamander Biology. Herpetologica 73: 177–179. [PDF]