2023 Fall Newsletter

Page 1

Highlands Biological

Foundation FALL NEWSLETTER 2023

Contents: Letter from President By the Numbers Nature Center News Highlands Field Site

Stimulating, promoting, & funding biological research & education in the southern Appalachians

Alumni Insights Grants & Awards Ways to Give

265 N. 6th St. | P.O. Box 580, Highlands, NC 28741 (828) 526-2221 www.highlandsbiological.org


On June 28th, the Highlands Biological Foundation (HBF) transitioned to new leadership. Jennie Stowers concluded her two-year tenure as HBF's Board President. Her exceptional leadership, unwavering dedication, and hands-on approach have been instrumental in steering our organization towards growth and success. She continues her journey with us as Past-President. Embracing the mantle of Board President is John Mitchener, a devoted, long-standing supporter of HBF. With a wealth of knowledge and a profound understanding of our mission, John is poised to lead us forward to an even more impactful future for our organization.

HBF BOARD OF DIRECTORS Lisa Armstrong Linda Barlow William Clarkson, Vice President James Costa (ex officio) Lisa Dailey Monte Gaillard Lindy Harrison Tom Holmes Cathy Jones James Landon Frank Langford Paul Manos (ex officio) David Martin, Secretary Melanie Mauldin James Milby John Mitchener, President Frances Oakley Amy Patterson, Treasurer William Reeves Vernon Skiles Alex Smith Carol Stewart Martha Stibbs Jennie Stowers, Past-President Jonnie Swann


As another busy summer comes to an end, the crisp autumn air leads us to reflect with gratitude on another successful season for HBF. We are really putting your generous donations to work! Highlights include HBF’s third installment of a $300,000 commitment to fund the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Highlands Field Site. Students are winning awards, and it is now the most popular UNC field site program in the state! Other major grants include $10,000 to Macon County’s STEM program, and $10,500 to the BatPack citizen science program. We funded four Research Assistants, one Naturalist, and three Outdoor Educators this summer and held wildly successful summer camps that sold out shortly after opening enrollment. Our nine Zahner lectures had record attendance, and we had great fun while raising needed funds at the Cheney Lane Soirée and Highlands on the Half-Shell. This summer, I have had the honor of becoming the next President of the Highlands Biological Foundation following in the footsteps of Jennie Stowers. My love for this incredible place is why I am involved with HBF. The heart of our mission is to help preserve it and educate and inspire everyone to take care of our natural splendor. Thank you again for your generous support of time and resources for such a worthy cause.


Researchers awarded “Grants-in-Aid” from HBF

awarded to UNC’s Highlands Field Site

adventurers participated in HBF’s Nature Center Nights programs

bat sounds were detected by the BatPack crew along the Appalachian Trail More than

visitors explored the Highlands Nature Center

birds analyzed at HBS as part of the MAPS bird banding station funded by HBF

oysters shucked & served at Highlands on the Half-Shell

people attended HBF’s Zahner Conservation Lectures

campers welcomed to the Nature Center (more than ever!)

people attended HBF’s second-ever Carpenter Lecture

More than

salamanders spotted during Salamander Meanders


HOLLY THEOBALD LEAD EDUCATION SPECIALIST | HBF Memories of this summer are filled with beautiful experiences shared with colleagues and nature enthusiasts of all ages. Together, we explored the Botanical Garden and beyond to learn what makes our mountains such an extraordinary place for plants, animals, and fungi to thrive. From making eco-art with children to traversing the trails following bird banders, the Botanical Garden become a scene filled with life-long learners able to share their passion for the natural world. These inspirational moments will drive our team to further educate people of all ages to learn more about the beautiful planet we share, how we may benefit from it, and how we may protect it for This summer, HBF hosted 22 nature camps, a record-breaking achievement for our organization. We are inspired and humbled by the overwhelming demand for our summer youth programming on the Plateau, which has led to a growing waitlist. This achievement is a testament to our shared commitment to fostering a deep connection between the younger generation and the natural world. This growth would not have been possible without you - thank you!

generations to come. This educational mission will manifest as we partner with local community organizations in the coming months. Topics will stretch to the worlds of organisms who call this area home and the relationships between them. Furthermore, the Claude Sullivan Geology Initiative will shape the Nature Center into the go-to place to learn how these ancient mountains came to be and how to tell the story of the earth through the rocks on which we live. Stay tuned for updates, and we hope to see you here soon!

BEYLA MUNACH 2023 OUTDOOR EDUCATOR | HBS/HBF When I accepted the Outdoor Educator position at the Highlands Biological Station, I had no idea how magical of a summer it would be. It was a learning experience that not only taught me about teaching and group facilitation, but myself. Getting to know 10 to 24 new campers each week felt daunting at first but soon became such a joy. My coworkers and

I was challenged to be flexible and pivot to meet the

I took the kids hiking, kayaking, fishing, and

needs of the group, which usually meant adapting

museum-exploring, and spent a lot of time in the

our lesson plans to escape a storm. After teaching,

botanical garden learning about plants, looking for

mentoring, and learning from hundreds of kids this

macroinvertebrates (stream insects!), and practicing

summer, I feel incredibly grateful to have been able

using our senses to explore the world around us.

to facilitate nature exploration in such a beautiful

And of course, we played lots of games!

and ecological important area.


This fall, the Highlands Biological Station opened its doors to welcome a brand new cohort of 15 undergraduate students to participate in one of their most influential programs - the Highlands Field Site (HFS) program through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment. Under the guidance of HFS Director Dr. Rada Petric, these students are delving into the intricate relationship between humans and their environment in the southern Appalachian region. They are building on the valuable research conducted by previous students, contributing to our understanding of environmental challenges in this region.

our third and final installment of a $300,000 commitment to the field site program, a testament to our ongoing dedication to education. This program has become the most sought-after field site program within UNC, boasting a waitlist due to its overwhelming popularity. Our support, made possible through contributions from valued members like you, played a pivotal role in this achievement. Read on to discover more about the exciting fall internship projects of these students and to witness the tangible impact your support is having on their educational journey.

Notably, this year marks a significant milestone as the Highlands Biological Foundation fulfilled




Susie Cantonwine & Rose Deconto Susie and Rose are surveying vegetation and species richness of birds and frogs in six wetlands around Highlands. Using audio recorders and trail cameras, they plan to determine what bird and frog species are found in each wetland. With this data, they will compare species richness between degraded and reference wetlands to understand more about wetland ecology in southern Appalachia. Hopefully, this will help to encourage more people to repair and protect our wetlands.

Mentors: Dr. Rada Petric (UNC-CH), Juliet Spafford (UNC-CH), Reagan Jarrett (WCU), & Jason Love (HBS/WCU)


Niya Friday & Danielle Mou Niya and Danielle are studying the factors that influence the probability of observing small mammal populations at the Highlands Biological Station. They will trap chipmunks, shrews, red-backed voles, woodland jumping mice, golden mice, and gray and red squirrels. They will collect data for each animal, tag each with an ear tag (if none pre-existing), then release the animal back to their homes.

Mentors: Dr. Robbie Burger (University of Kentucky) & Dr. Rada Petric (UNC-CH)


Zoë Heard & Sydney Sibillia Zoë and Sydney are surveying bats around Macon, Jackson, Clay, and Transylvania counties in order to assess the presence and locations of endangered and threatened species. The students are setting up audio sensors near abandoned mines to collect bat calls near the potential man-made roosts. Once all fifteen sites are set up, the data will be gathered and analyzed using bat identification software to test hypotheses on which species of bats might utilize the areas and potentially be benefited by protecting those spaces.

Mentors: Dr. Rada Petric (UNC-CH), Juliet Spafford (UNC-CH), & Jason Love (HBS/WCU)


Zach Laibinis & Tayton Alvis Zach and Tayton, “The Fish”, team will be seining mountain fish of NC in Tessentee, Brush, and Cowee Creeks. Data collected will inform us of whether or not whitetail shiners migrate up the tributaries of Little Tennessee River in the fall. The whitetail shiner is a surrogate species for the spotfin chub, a threatened species in NC, which fills the same niche as our study species.

Mentors: Dr. Bill McLarney (Mainspring Conservation Trust) & Jason Meador (Mainspring Conservation Trust)



Nikita Mcclure, Paige Hannam, & Caroline Tintinger Nikita, Paige, and Caroline are surveying one of the southernmost stands of red spruce trees in the Nantahala National Forest to evaluate the condition and recruitment status of the trees. The ultimate goal of their research is to gain a better understanding of spruces to better assess how climate change affects the species and their ecosystem.

Mentors: Gary Kauffman (USFS, National Forests of North Carolina) & Maria Dunlavey (USFS, Nantahala National Forest)


Connor Phillips & Elise Trexler Connor and Elise are assessing the detectability rate of Motus towers using drones, formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) is an international collaborative research network that uses coordinated automated radio telemetry to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of migratory animals. There has been little research testing the accuracy of Motus's tracking capabilities, so Connor and Elise will contribute to the knowledge base by attaching NanoTags to hot dogs, attaching the hot dogs to an UAS, and flying them by different Motus towers. By comparing the data collected from the UAS and the detections from the Motus tower database, they will be able to test the accuracy of the Motus tower's tracking capabilities.

Mentors: Troy Walton (UNC-CH Drone Lab) & Dr. Rada Petric (UNC-CH)


Adriana Kirk & Nicole Barret Adriana and Nicole are studying alternative reproductive tactics in Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders through photo-mark-recapture surveys and larvae DNA extraction. Male Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders exhibit one of two distinct reproductive tactics —“searching” males locate and court females in terrestrial habitats while “guarding” males engage in mate-guarding behavior at aquatic nesting sites. The goal of the project is to better understand the relative frequencies between these two reproductive tactics and whether they change across years.

Mentor: Dr. Todd Pierson (Kennesaw State University)


This year, the Highlands Biological Station welcomed back two former Highlands Field Site (HFS) students to continue their research and mentor the next cohort of students studying bats, wetlands, microplastics, and more. Funding for these roles was provided by the Highlands Biological Foundation. Learn about their journeys below.

REAGAN JARRET | 2023 RESEARCH ASSISTANT HBS/WCU The Appalachian Trail offers a scenic refuge to thousands of hikers, backpackers, and nature enthusiasts year-round, but outdoor adventurers aren’t the only ones making use of this iconic trail. BatPack, a citizen science approach to studying bats along the Appalachian Trail, aims to combine a love for the great outdoors with a love for science. From seasoned hikers to weekend explorers, all are invited to hit the trails! But a BatPack excursion is more than just a walk in the woods. Using lightweight acoustic monitors, volunteers collect valuable data on the behaviors, habitats, and population dynamics of various bat species. With ongoing threats of habitat loss and disease for bat species across the U.S., it is more important than ever to focus on the conservation and protection of these essential creatures, and BatPack does just that. This summer, the BatPack crew took off on eight weekend trips, covering more than 100 miles of trail from Georgia to Virginia, and recording several different bat species from Appalachian Trail campsites and shelters. While colder weather brings this bat monitoring season to a close, the BatPack crew looks forward to continuing our research posthibernation, next spring. If anyone is interested in supporting or getting involved with the BatPack project, feel free to reach out to us directly, or keep an eye on our Instagram @batpackat. Until then, happy hiking!

JULIET SPAFFORD | 2023 RESEARCH ASSISTANT/ RESIDENT ADVISOR | HBS/UNC-CH Over the summer, I had the pleasure of working for the Highlands Biological Station as a Research Assistant working with bats, wetlands, and birds — oh my! As a former student of the Station with the fall 2022 Highlands Field Site cohort, I spent the semester experiencing the magic and the beauty of this area firsthand. One of the reasons many of us fell in love with Highlands, after all, is its rich history and biodiversity. Much of my summer was spent knee-deep in wetlands by day and balancing bat detectors under the stars by night, watching the fireflies, and catching interesting moths. As the bat and wetlands projects have continued, I’ve enjoyed seeing the seasons transition and the advent of a new set of students; some will continue work we began previously, and some will start fresh with shiny new projects (namely: the whitetail shiner project). As their Resident Advisor, I’m very excited to see their progress and to watch them become incredible scientists. Over the next few months, I will join another Research Assistant, Reagan Jarrett, in mentoring two of the internship groups for the HFS program: bats and mines, and wetlands. I will also be finishing up my independent research project from last fall involving bats and anthropogenic noise with the help of my former research partner, Emilie Patrick, Ken Donny Clark (former HFS student 2022), and HFS Director, Dr. Rada Petric.


ANNELIESE PINNELL | 12TH GRADE STUDENT THE NC SCHOOL OF SCIENCE & MATHEMATICS This summer when I was at the Station, I spent the early hours of the morning up until around noon traversing the trails in search of songbirds. Mist nets were set up around the Station in order to safely catch songbirds which would then be handled by experienced researchers, research assistants, and volunteers to record data regarding each individual. It was impressive how much data could be taken from a single bird. More than 30 attributes were recorded per individual, some being age, molt, feather wear, and wing length. Seeing these animals whom I previously had only seen in the sky was captivating. The icy blue coloration of the blue jay was even more vibrant up close, the song of the grey catbird was crisper, seeing an individual grab a mosquito out of thin air, and the distinct differences between males and females of sexually dimorphic species was even more pronounced. From this experience, not only was I able to practice identifying local species, learn how their age can be determined by bone structures, and how to calibrate and use specialized research equipment, but I was able to better understand our feathered friends and the importance of their conservation.

WINTER GARY | MARKETING MANAGER | HBF In early 2023, the Highlands Biological Foundation proudly granted $10,000 to Macon County School's STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program, marking a significant milestone in our mission to foster biological research and education in the southern Appalachians. This grant fueled vital educational initiatives, enabling field trips, hikes, special presentations, and essential science equipment in county schools. A standout result of this grant was the 14th annual "Migration Celebration”. The brainchild of Jennifer Love, Macon County School’s STEM Coordinator, and Jason Love, Associate Director of the Highlands Biological Station, this event unfolded at Mainspring Conservation Trust's Tessentee Bottomland Preserve in late September, where 6th graders from Macon County immersed themselves in the world of animal migration. Students caught and tagged monarch butterflies as part of the Kansas State University Monarch Watch program and engaged in bird banding sessions, offering an authentic look at the life of neo-tropical migrants passing through.

The "Migration Celebration" nurtures the next generation of scientists and conservationists. Through hands-on data collection and interactions with scientists, students connect classroom learning to real-life projects, appreciating the power of citizen involvement in scientific research. The success of this program owes much to collaborative efforts from organizations like the Highlands Biological Station, Macon County Schools, Blue Ridge Bird Observatory, the Cherokee Tribe, and more. Together, we are cultivating curiosity and knowledge, preparing youth to safeguard our natural resources. As the Highlands Biological Foundation, we are immensely proud to invest in Macon STEM, the Migration Celebration, and our county's young, inquisitive minds, nurturing future leaders. This grant is an investment in tomorrow, where science and nature education thrive, and young minds shape a positive impact on our world.

10 For over 50 years, the Foundation has provided ‘Grants-in-Aid (GIA) of Scientific Research’ at HBS, bringing graduate students and research scientists to Highlands from all over the country and abroad. When you give to HBF, you invest in research projects that help us better understand the incredible biodiversity of this region. Learn about some of the 2023 research projects you contributed to below.

DR. SANDY KAWANO | ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY The Appalachian Mountain region is renowned for its diverse flora and fauna, but some of its most valuable treasures may be hiding right under your nose (or feet, to be more precise). The southeastern U.S.A. is a biodiversity hotspot for salamanders, so you will see more salamanders in the southern Appalachians than anywhere else in the world. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has gone on a Salamander Meander with the Nature Center! This region is a salamander paradise due to the mild temperatures and heavy rainfall but drastic environmental changes have had devastating effects on amphibians, pushing thousands of species beyond their physiological limits. Individuals can escape poor environments by dispersing to more hospitable environments but the metabolic costs could make dispersal an insurmountable task. Although some species migrate long distances (up to 100 meters per night in red-spotted newts), others rarely leave the rotten log that they call “home" (<2 m per night for some dusky salamanders). However, it is unclear whether the homebodies are fully capable of dispersal but choose not to or whether it’s physiologically impossible for them to complete such a marathon. To fill this gap, I am integrating approaches from physiology and engineering to test whether populations with wider geographic ranges have lower metabolic rates and more efficient walking gaits that enable them to disperse long distances. This past June, one of my Ph.D. students (Jonathan Huie) and collaborator (Dr. Emily Naylor, James Madison University) helped me collect salamanders from North Carolina that spanned from “couch potato” to “athlete” and then study their physiology at the newly renovated Aquatics Lab at the Station. We are currently analyzing our data, but already made some surprising discoveries. Stay tuned!

KIMBERLY COOK | PH.D. STUDENT | UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY My team and I are searching for discarded containers at scenic overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Back at the lab, the team rinses out cans, glass, and plastic bottles in search for skeletal remains of small mammals. The skeletons and skulls formerly belonging to shrews, rodents, and the occasional salamander can be used to identify species. The aim of this project is to increase the number of records for southern Appalachian small mammals that specialize on high elevation habitat, such as the spruce-fir forest. With more records, it becomes possible to create mathematical models of the small mammals’ geographic ranges in the past, present, and future in the face of climate change.



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Research in the southern Appalachians

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that will inspire present & future generations to preserve & protect the unique environment of the Highlands Plateau. Please remember HBF in your will. Native plant gardens at HBS

For additional giving opportunities or more information, please call (828) 526-2221.

Community outreach & education Photos courtesy of: Kimberly Cook: page 10 Winter Gary: pages 2, 11 HBS Summer Staff: pages 4, 8, 11 HFS Students: pages 5, 6, 7

Brenda & Phil Julian: pages 1, 12 Sandy Kawano: pages 10, 11 Colleen Kerrigan: pages 4, 11, 12

Dylan Lytle: page 1 Macon County STEM: page 9 Charlotte Muir: page 11

Cookie Patterson: page 12 Anneliese Pinnell: page 9 Holly Theobald: page 11

The Highlands Biological Station is a multi-campus center of Western Carolina University.

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