Elk Valley Preserve and Field Station provides microcosm of regional biodiversity to student and faculty researchers

The 70-acre property was revitalized from an old landfill and today is a thriving ecosystem where Lees-McRae students conduct groundbreaking research

Along the Elk River, just a few minutes from the Lees-McRae campus, sits the Elk Valley Preserve and Field Station. Covering a sprawling 70 acres, the preserve is more than just a beautiful swath of environmentally protected land. The Elk Valley Preserve and Field Station is a natural laboratory where Lees-McRae students and faculty conduct groundbreaking research in a real-world environment.

The preserve houses multiple distinct biomes, from shallow river habitats to mixed deciduous forested areas, providing Lees-McRae researchers with the perfect microcosm of the Southern Appalachian region in which to conduct studies spanning nearly every scientific discipline.

Before being revitalized as a nature preserve, the area was the site of the old Avery County landfill. In 1990, Faculty Emeritus Stewart Skeate began drafting plans to reclaim the land and build a field station to enhance learning opportunities for students in the new Naturalist (now Wildlife Biology) program. The field station was dedicated in 2003 and has been a hub of scientific discovery ever since.

The impressive size and scope of the preserve may overwhelm a casual visitor, so we’ve put together a field guide that details each of the six biomes, along with the field station. Explore the different areas to learn more about the habitats that surround our mountain home and how experiential education has benefited past and current students.

The Field

The field habitat in the Elk Valley Preserve is what is known as an early successional habitat. Here larger, woodier plants have not yet been established, and more delicate plants like grasses and flowers are abundant. Nestled within the field is the field station itself, where students and faculty have access to a fully functional ecology lab that is equipped for research and experimentation.

These projects aren’t bound by the walls of the field station, however. The lab extends into the field itself, where students and faculty conduct numerous research projects to learn more about the habitat. 

Pollinator Surveys

Beautiful flowers of all kinds heavily populate the field area of the preserve, making it a great location to study pollination patterns. Senior Wildlife Biology major Alex Trifunovic has been working alongside Assistant Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Shinjini Goswami to do just that in a research project that studies the effects of climate change and outdoor air temperatures on pollinator species and the plants they pollinate.

Goswami and Trifunovic monitor plots across the preserve to learn which pollinator species are attracted to which plants and their frequency of visitation. Now, with an entire year’s worth of data, they can make conclusions about the effect the changing outdoor air temperature has on pollination, and form hypotheses about how climate change may affect that habitat.

Plant Illustrations

Communication Arts and Design and Wildlife Biology alum Tessa Wells ’23 also focused on the flowers in the Elk Valley Preserve field for a project that combined skills from both of her majors. Wells photographed and illustrated various plant species throughout the field habitat, seeking to highlight some of the lesser-known varieties that are native to this region.

“These illustrations allow you to pick apart the parts of the species more easily, and say, ‘oh, this is the way the veins of the leaf go,’ or ‘this is how the flowers stem out of the base of the plant,’” Wells said. “With a photograph you go out, snap a picture, then it’s like, ‘okay, we’re done,’ but when you paint it you actually have to look at it a lot more closely and figure out what colors are in it and how it works visually.”

Wells' illustration of a Showy Orchid
Wells' illustration of a Ghostpipe

Mixed Deciduous Forest

The forested area of the Elk Valley Preserve is divided into three main sections: the oak forest, the cove forest, and the mixed deciduous forest. Unlike the oak and cove forests, the mixed deciduous forest is not as densely populated by trees and is a transitional zone between the field and the older and more densely populated forests that travel up the mountains, making it a dynamic area of study.

Wooly Adelgid on Eastern Hemlocks

Eastern hemlocks are a populous tree in the Southern Appalachian region and in the Elk Valley Preserve, making them an obvious point of interest for Goswami and Wildlife Biology alum Gabriella Williams ‘23, who have studied the effect the invasive species woolly adelgid has on the trees.

“Those hemlocks, which are such a dominant part of the Southern Appalachians and Appalachians as a whole, are getting decimated by this woolly adelgid, which is a fungal attack,” Goswami said. “Woolly adelgid is foreign to this area, and once it starts to get into the veins of the plants, it basically starts to girdle the plant from the outside.”

Goswami and Williams set up plots in the preserve to analyze the hemlocks, assess the advancement of the woolly adelgid infestation on the trees, determine how many trees have been affected by this invasive species, and formulate plans for recovery.

Cove Forest

While all the forest designations are connected, the cove forest is distinct because of a small stream system running through it. This creates a more humid climate, with more moist soil than can be found in the mixed deciduous and oak forests. This unique combination of habitat traits makes the cove forest home to a variety of interesting creatures.

Salamander Plots

Wildlife Biology alum Julie Banner ’23 loves salamanders and loves to work with the unique creatures any time she has the chance, an opportunity that became common for her throughout her time at Lees-McRae thanks to the large population of salamanders in the Elk Valley Preserve. 

During the Fall 2021 semester, Banner began working with a group of her friends and fellow salamander enthusiasts on a research project in the preserve to catalog and better understand the salamander populations in the habitat. The research team blocked out eight plots across the two primary salamander habitats in the preserve, four in the lower elevation mixed deciduous forest, and four in the higher elevation cove forest.

“The research consisted of going out almost every night that it was raining and spending some predetermined amount of time in each of those plots, collecting salamanders, putting them in little bags, and putting them in buckets to bring back to the field station,” Banner said. “There are places at the preserve where you can stand in one place, not move your feet at all, and collect 30 salamanders. They are so abundant out there, it’s amazing.”

By examining both plot areas, the research team was able to compare abundance, species variance, and other important indicators of species and habitat health across the two habitats.

“There were significant differences between the high-elevation forest and the early successional forest as far as habitat suitability,” Banner said. “What we saw was more abundant salamanders at higher elevations, and more diversity at higher elevations.”

Oak Forest

The oak forest designates the section of the forest with the highest elevation. This forested zone, which continues to the pinnacle of the mountains along the ridgeline, is heavily populated by oak trees and is the driest area of forest in the preserve. Due to the higher elevation and drier conditions, plant and animal species found in the oak forest are often adapted differently than species in other areas of the preserve.

Mast Collection

The mast, or acorn, collection survey is one of the longest ongoing projects in the preserve. Each fall Director of the Elk Valley Preserve Michael Osbourn takes his field biology class on a hike to the oak forest at the peak of the preserve, where they can use the tiny nut to make predictions about the ecological and biological health of numerous species in the preserve throughout the upcoming winter.

Acorns are an extremely important “crop” produced by oak trees each year. Not only are they an important food source for a variety of animals including bears, deer, squirrels, and rabbits, but they are also the seeds that eventually grow into more oak trees. According to Osbourn, the size of the mast crop varies each year, and while a large mast crop can be a sign of a more survivable winter, a slimmer crop can tell a different story.

“From the tree’s perspective, a big mast year is good in that you swamp the herbivores, and they can’t possibly eat them all so more of your offspring are going to survive,” Osbourn said. “How it affects wildlife is, if you have a low mast year they’re not going to have as much food, their populations are probably going to go down, individuals won’t make it through the winter. All these individual trees will collaborate in a way on the number of acorns that they produce each year, and it translates to the wildlife populations.”

As a class, the field biology students examine sections of a pre-determined grid in the oak forest, counting the number of acorns that have fallen in each unit. This data is used to estimate the number of acorns in larger areas and make predictions about how the size of the mast crop will affect other creatures in the habitat.

Elk River

The Elk River is classified as a second-order stream, meaning that smaller streams flow into each other to create it. Clear and cold, this is a typical mountain stream with quick-moving water that flows and cascades around boulders and rocks, leading to a high oxygen level. This habitat is great for trout, benthic macroinvertebrates, and aquatic insects that make up the trout’s food chain, but also for Eastern Hellbenders, the largest aquatic giant salamander species, which is native to the eastern and central United States.

Fish and Aquatic Invertebrates Collection

Led by Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology Thorpe Halloran, students in the freshwater ecology class have taken on a massive project to build a teaching collection that will identify all the benthic macroinvertebrates and stream insects that call the Elk River home. 

While the class started small with these creatures that provide food for trout, Halloran said he plans to continue building this collection with more students in the coming semesters, aiming to eventually identify fish species in the river as well. The experiential learning value of this project is two-fold; instructing students on the techniques used to build these kinds of collections, such as electrofishing, and helping them develop the skills needed to identify a creature they’ve never seen before.

“Identifying stream insects takes a lot of time underneath the microscope, and it builds up a lot of requisite skill sets for students. Knowing how to use a dichotomous key, knowing how to collect, knowing how to identify something you've never seen before,” Halloran said.

This project has real-world applications in the skills and techniques gathered throughout the process, but also in its findings. As small creatures who cannot easily flee from bad water quality, Halloran said that stream insects are a much better indicator of water quality than fish. Diverse insects don’t only mean happy critters, but an overall high water quality level in the Elk River as well.


Along the stream sits the only animal-made habitat in the Elk Valley Preserve. The wetlands in the preserve have been formed by a series of dams constructed by beavers in the area. Two smaller dams lead to a small pond, which is sectioned off by a much larger dam that creates an ever-widening cattail marsh.

Wetlands are an essential habitat for countless animal species. In the Elk Valley Preserve the wetlands are home to migratory waterfowl like Canada geese and great blue heron; reptiles and amphibians like turtles, frogs, and salamanders; and mammals like beavers, muskrats, and the occasional otter.

Bat Detection

One of the more secretive species found in the preserve is bats, but Senior Wildlife Biology major Kevin O’Brienhalla took on a project that seeks to understand them better. 

Armed with a high-tech frequency-reading device, O’Brienhalla set up shop in different locations throughout the preserve to conduct a survey of the different bat species found in the region. While he said there are many different species of bats found in that habitat, the predominant type in this area feed on insects. According to Osbourn, wetlands are just one of a variety of habitats that bats may be drawn to, which is why O’Brienhalla’s bat detection study will send him all around the preserve to learn about the different bat species that reside there.

“Bats are very important to the ecosystem, and I think it's very important that we have them around campus too, because they help eat insects. Just knowing the bat species around here, and the good that they're doing for the ecosystem, I think that's the most important part,” O’Brienhalla said.

While the bat detection device helps him locate the flying mammals, there is a lot more that goes into building a survey of bat species in the preserve. Because of their extremely high frequency calls and use of echolocation, bat sounds are not audible to the human ear. The device is able to pick up these frequencies, but O’Brienhalla must manually analyze each captured sound wave to determine the specific species that was recorded.

By Maya JarrellApril 08, 2024
AcademicsCampus Life