South Campus property presents world of opportunity for scientific study and research

Since the college’s landmark acquisition of the former Grandfather Home for Children property in March 2022, the possibilities for this new land have proved to be virtually endless. Not only did the purchase give the college much-needed office and residential space, it also provided plenty of beautiful, biologically diverse land for students and faculty to get outside of the classroom and explore through scientific study and research.

At nearly 500 acres, the South Campus property boasts plenty of space for individual student and faculty research. Additionally, it acts as an extension of the classroom and outdoor laboratory for full courses such as Intro to Field Biology, Research Topics in Biology, Herpetology, Mammalogy, and more. This property has been a game changer for Wildlife Biology students who, through the acquisition, gained a built-in gateway to studying the world around them.

“Access to natural areas and native populations of plants and wildlife is one of the signature strengths of the Wildlife Biology program at Lees-McRae. This is part of the reason why students come to Lees-McRae, and the addition of South Campus greatly increased opportunities for hands-on, experiential education,” Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor for Wildlife Biology Michael Osbourn, who has already used the South Campus property in several of his Field Biology and Herpetology classes, said. “In Herpetology we surveyed the creeks, forests, and wetlands for salamanders, frogs, and snakes. In Field Biology we used live trapping and camera trapping to survey small mammals.”

Senior Wildlife Biology major Makayla Norman monitors equipment used for mammal trapping and monitoring on South Campus.

The natural and biological diversity of the land that makes up South Campus is one of the property’s biggest strong suits. According to Osbourn, this property is home to a variety of natural habitats that aren’t present on either North Campus or in the Elk Valley Preserve, the college’s 70-acre ecological preserve located along the Elk River designated specifically for research and experiential learning. With even more variety in land types and habitats, the quality and replication potential of student research projects becomes even stronger.

Wildlife Biology major Alex Trifunovic is one such student taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity presented by the South Campus property. Under the guidance of Assistant Dean of Natural and Health Sciences and Assistant Professor of Biology Shinjini Goswami, Trifunovic began a study researching plants and their pollinators in the Elk Valley Preserve in the Fall 2022 semester.

This project involved marking out 30 1x1 meter plots across the field area of the preserve, monitoring the different types of pollinating flowers in each area, and noting which types of pollinating species visit them. Through this project Trifunovic said he hopes to correlate plant diversity with insect diversity, which will allow him to make observations about the health and well-being of the overall environment in this area.

“Southern Appalachia has one of the highest bee diversities in the entire country, but it also has one of the highest uncertainties. Here we have a very patchy, variable habitat from area to area, and across the region, so getting a better look at the fine scale, local bee abundance is going to be important,” Trifunovic said. “Is this habitat that we have—here at the field station and on South Campus—good for bees and other pollinators? What specific kinds of plant communities are going to have the highest diversity and abundance?”

A pollinating bee observed by Trifunovic and Goswami in one of the study plots in the Elk Valley Preserve.

Now, after about half a year of working on this project, Trifunovic has the opportunity to expand his research thanks to the new South Campus property, which will provide him with a larger sample size, and receiving the Ledford Scholarship, which will provide additional funds for the continuation of the project. In April Trifunovic will block out an additional 30 1x1 meter plots on South Campus where he will collect data as he did in the preserve.

Not only will this allow him to build a larger data set and have more physical room for his research, but Trifunovic said that setting up plots on South Campus will also make his data, and any information he is able to glean from it, much stronger.

“South Campus is pretty close distance-wise to the preserve, but it’s about 500 feet higher. It’s a bit higher in elevation, and just walking around both areas, the makeup of plants is different between the two sites,” Trifunovic said, naming ragweed as one of the plant species he has noticed an abundance of on South Campus, and a lack of at the Elk Valley Preserve. “Getting a second site adds more robustness to the data set and allows for some comparison. It eliminates some of the bias that could also come from having just one site.”

Trifunovic and Goswami collect data at one of the plots in the Elk Valley Preserve.

Trifunovic’s research project is just one of the many ways that Lees-McRae students and faculty have already begun using the South Campus property to expand their educational opportunities, and it’s only the beginning of the property’s potential. Osbourn has big dreams for the future of South Campus, and, among other things, envisions developing a Wildlife Education Center on the property to expand the efforts at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and build up the Wildlife Biology and Wildlife Rehabilitation academic programs.

Wildlife Biology Utilizes South Campus to Expand Learning Opportunities

As a proud steward of the community and environment, it is the college’s responsibility to care for and protect the land that has given and will continue to give so much to students and faculty. As the college continues to use the South Campus property for scientific research, studies, and other initiatives it is incredibly important that it is developed in an environmentally friendly and responsible manner, not only to preserve the natural resources, but also to bring the college’s goals and ambitions for the property to fruition in the most sustainable way possible.

“Preserving the natural areas of South Campus is key to this vision. It is my hope that we employ smart growth and sustainability strategies in any new construction at the site. Our wildlife students’ efforts to document the diversity of flora, fauna, and ecosystems on South Campus will lay the groundwork for careful stewardship and management of this resource,” Osbourn said. “Developing conservation and management plans for South Campus’ natural areas will further provide students with a unique learning opportunity that would be hard to match at another institution.”

By Maya JarrellMarch 23, 2023
AcademicsCampus Life