news-category: Academics

Gardner-Webb Class Travels to Cataloochee Valley to Study Elk Behavior

A student poses in the Cataloochee Valley with a camera and an elk in the background
Madison Deslatte poses while taking photos of the elk.

Students Take Pictures and Present Their Observations in Poster Format

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Gardner-Webb University students in Biology 315 (animal physiology) recently made a trip to Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they viewed elk in their natural habitat. Assistant Professor of biology Jay Zimmer teaches the class and noted that the fall of the year is one of the best times to study elk behavior.

Leaving the campus at 4:45 a.m., the group traveled for about two and one-half hours to catch the herd rising from the bedding ground. Zimmer explained that this time of the year is when the bull elk gather up and defend a harem of cows. “The dominant bull will bugle to deter competing bulls and often must chase them away,” he described.

According to information on the Bryson City (N.C.) website, Cataloochee Valley is nestled along one of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks, the area began as a farming community and quickly became a tourist destination. The elk were eliminated by over-hunting, but 25 were reintroduced in 2001 and have grown to at least 150.

Avery Callan made this photo.

To better understand the habits exhibited during their observations, the students learned about the ecology of the park before the trip. At the park, they took pictures of the elk with telephoto lenses and cameras on loan from the GWU Department of Communication, Art & Design. After taking the photos, the group analyzed and charted the behavior they witnessed among the elk. They heard one of the bulls bugle many times and were able to get a picture of him bugling.

“I would definitely wake up at 4 a.m. again to go see the elk in the Great Smoky Mountains,” shared one of the students, Ireyona Demary. “Being as close as we were to the elk and getting to see how they interact with one another was amazing. My favorite part of the entire day was seeing a fawn so close to its mother and watching it play and trot around by itself. I thought it was so amazing the pictures we were able to get with the nice cameras we were provided. We felt like professional photographers. Overall, this trip with the animal physiology class is one I’ll never forget.”

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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