Oct. 12-18, 2001
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U.Va.'s pristine reserach area draws scientists

By Fariss Samarrai

Henry Wilbur
Henry Wilbur

Henry Wilbur in sandals will out-hike most people in boots. But along the way he’ll
stop to smell the roses, so to speak. Wilbur has a passionate love for nature and a seemingly infinite knowledge of the natural history of the Southern Appalachians.

“I have an emotional attachment to the mountains,” said Wilbur, the director of U.Va.’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, a 650-acre research facility near a mountaintop wilderness in southwestern Virginia’s Giles County.

He has plenty of company at Mountain Lake.

Biologists from around the world come to the station each summer to search for new answers to old questions about ecology and evolution. The station brings together professors and students, both graduate and undergraduate, in a pristine environment of diverse flora and fauna for a variety of studies on birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, fish, herbs and trees.

The station’s beautiful setting at 3,800 feet above sea level is part college campus, part outdoor science lab and part mountain getaway. The air is clear and cool, with daytime temperatures averaging in the mid-70’s in the summer. One visiting scientist describes the area as a “microcosm of the world at its best.”

study of salamander populations
Henry Wilbur and other Mountain Lake scientists study salamander populations in enclosures that simulate the amphibian’s natural environments.

The setting and surrounding areas include mixed forests, streams, meadows, Mountain Lake (the only natural lake in the southern Appalachians), ponds, bogs and rocky ridges.

Mountain Lake Biological Station was established in 1929 with a “build it and they will come” spirit, said Wilbur, the B.F.D. Runk Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences at U.Va. “The station has been attracting top-rank scientists ever since.”

Many renowned researchers have visited the station, including Dian Fossey, who gave a presentation on her gorilla research in 1981, and ended up staying for several weeks.

Faculty and students conduct about 17 short- and long-term field and laboratory investigations in evolution, plant and animal diversity, and conservation biology. Of the 10 projects that are long-term, six have been ongoing for 15 or more years. Scientists study a variety of natural subjects, from insect-infected hemlocks, to bird populations, to plant diseases. The station supports up to 100 students and researchers at any given time during the summer.

Facilities include rustic and modern cabins, molecular laboratories, an aquatics lab, classrooms, an auditorium, research plots, a library, an herbarium, insect collections and a dining hall, where students and professors eat together at large tables, discussing their various projects. Researchers also have access to sites on nearby private property and in the Jefferson National Forest. Station grounds also include hiking trails, a swimming pond and a volleyball court.

Mountain Lake project
Photo by Fariss Samarrai
One of the 17 projects being conducted at Mountain Lake examines ways to stop the spread of the wooly hemlock adelgid, an insect that is killing hemlock trees throughout the eastern U.S.

In addition to research funding, the station receives $50,000 per year from the National Science Foundation for 10 undergraduate research scholarships. The students receive a stipend, free room and board and research experience with a faculty mentor.

“The idea is to give undergraduate students a research experience similar to that of graduate students, to involve them in field biology early in their education,” said Wilbur. Ten students in the undergraduate research program have gone on to earn NSF fellowships for graduate school.

Catherine Kelly, a fourth-year biology and environmental sciences major, used a special two-week scholarship for a three-credit field entomology course at the station this summer.

Photo by Fariss Samarrai
Scientists at Mountain Lake use specially designed bags to isolate adelgid-infested hemlock branches, allowing them to monitor the effectiveness of a beetle that feeds on the adelgid.

“It was great to get an intensive hands-on field experience,” she said. “Our class was incredibly busy from the time we got up until the time we went to bed. It was great to be out in the woods learning, living in the cabins, being a part of a community of scientists.”

During her time at the station, Kelly took stream and lake samples, visited several terrestrial habitats, and learned to identify numerous insects. “The class was very demanding,” she said. “We had to write reports and present them to the faculty and other students. It was an opportunity to learn to think like a scientist, to do what I love.”

Kelly also found some leisure time for hikes, including an early morning trek to a mountaintop to catch a golden sunrise over a fog-filled valley.

“Mountain Lake is a lot better than a walled-in classroom,” she said.

Like her mentor, Henry Wilbur, Catherine Kelly is developing an emotional attachment to the mountains.


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of the University of Virginia

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