EEB 585: Natural History of the Southern Appalachians

Natural History of the Southern Appalachians

Back row: Danielle Debruyne, Katy Reeder, Matt Petersen, Greg Curler, Bree Surges, Aaftab Jain, Kristy Halverson, Ann Goewert, Jen Vogel.

Front row: Jessica Skibbe, Saad Arif, Megan O'Rourke, Renae Schmitt, Anne Peteson, Stephanie Koehler, Lisa Potter, Micea Mitriou.

Instructor: Dr. Greg Courtney (cameraman).


  1. Review the geological history of the southern Appalachians and its influence on the distribution, abundance, and diversity of native flora and fauna.
  2. Expose students to the ecosystems and biotic communities of the southern Appalachians.
  3. Learn about the biological diversity of the southern Appalachians, with emphasis on native plants, aquatic organisms, and selected vertebrate groups.
  4. Gain experience in the field study, collection, and identification (through use of taxonomic keys) of native flora and fauna.
  5. Visit areas managed by different agencies to gain an understanding of natural resource issues that influence the region.


The southern Appalachian Mountains harbor a wide variety of habitats and a remarkable diversity of terrestrial and aquatic organisms. Moderate temperatures, high precipitation (>1800 mm / year), and continuously flowing streams provide ample resources across the complex landscape. Forests are dominated by deciduous oak species and an evergreen understory of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel. The region's numerous cool, high-gradient streams contain one of the world's most diverse aquatic biotas, and have been a focal point for the ongoing All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI website: Discover Life in America) of the Smoky Mountains and numerous projects based at Highlands Biological Laboratory and Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), a biological centerpiece of the southern Appalachians, comprises more than half a million acres and harbors one of the richest diversities of plants and animals in the temperate world (GSMNP website). Climate, topography, large tracts of old-growth and contiguous forests, and protection as a national park have contributed to this diversity. GSMNP also is the most visited park in the National Park system, with approximately nine million visitors annually. Visitation pressure and concomitant human impacts are among the existing and impending threats to park species. Some forest ecosystems are threatened by introduced pests, including the balsam woolly adelgid, gypsy moth, Chinese chestnut blight, and Dutch elm disease. In addition, GSMNP receives some of the highest depositions of nitrates and sulfates in eastern North America, which acidify the park's soils and streams. These and other impacts are among the major incentives of the ATBI program, which aims to generate data that will allow intelligent decision making as to which sites, species, and natural processes are the most important to protecting park biodiversity.

Highlands Biological Station (HBS) is a field station for biological research and education in the Blue Ridge geologic province of western North Carolina (HBS website). The facility is an interinstitutional center of the University of North Carolina and is available for year-round use by students and faculty engaged in biodiversity studies (ecology, systematics, evolution, and conservation). The station is located in the town of Highlands, situated on a high plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern North Carolina. To the south and southeast is a series of gorges of spectacular rivers, including the highest waterfalls in eastern North America. The Highlands region receives 80-100 inches of precipitation annually, making it the wettest place in eastern North America. The region is known for its plant and animal diversity, and few areas outside the tropics offer comparable opportunities for work in ecology, systematics, and evolution.

Another focal area is Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory, a Long-Term Ecological Research located 20 miles west of HBS (CHL website). The site is managed jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and University of Georgia, with major funding from the National Science Foundation. Research at Coweeta involves scientists from several institutions and encompasses many topics, including long-term hydrology, nutrient cycling, and productivity in response to management practices and natural disturbance (drought, flood, insects); effects of climatic change on ecosystem productivity; the effects of land use practices on water quality; physiological studies of forest carbon balance and competition; and biodiversity. Many projects incorporate areas adjacent to CHL, including GSMNP and Highlands Biological Station.


Before we embarked on the trip, we gathered weekly to discuss scientific literature about the area and listen to presentations by class members. We had 18 presentations in all, covering a variety of topics such as:

  • Geology and quaternary paleoecology of the southern Appalachians
  • Altitudinal gradients and their impact on the flora and fauna of the southern Appalachians
  • Diversity and distribution of fungi, mammals, birds, salamanders, freshwater mussels, and benthic macroinvertebrates in the southern Appalachians
  • The history and impact of agriculture, roads, fire, floods, landslides, and invasive species in the southern Appalachians

NB: Website design by John VanDyk, content provided by Greg Courtney and Jessica Skibbe, most photos by Greg Courtney.

Updated 2006-05-15 09:06