Sewanee's 13,000 acre Domain is located at the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau that extends down through Kentucky into Tennessee and Alabama. It is the westernmost portion of the Southern Appalachian region. The biologically rich hardwood forests of the Cumberland Plateau are considered to be among the highest conservation-value forests remaining in North America today. This is partly due to the fact that this region contains some of the largest remaining tracts of privately owned, contiguous temperate deciduous forest left on the continent.

These forest tracts represent critical neotropical migratory songbird habitat and serve as the headwaters to the most biologically diverse, freshwater stream systems found in the temperate world. The Cumberland Plateau is considered a global hotspot for amphibian and terrestrial snail diversity and contains some of the most diverse plant communities in the eastern United States. This past year the Sewanee Herbarium discovered over a dozen new plant species for the Domain, including a new state record, bringing the total Domain flora to over 1,080 species.

Eastern Newt    Dutchman's Breeches on Shakerag Trail

The rich biodiversity of the Domain is a function of the large variety of habitats () that can be found there. If you fly over the Domain, you will look down on a broad, flat-topped mountain dissected on all sides by steep-sided drainages or “coves”. The forest ecosystem associated with the cove is distinctly different from the upland forest found on top of the plateau. On north-facing slopes in the coves you will find towering forests of buckeyes and basswoods, carpeted in spring wildflowers, with streams that cascade over glorious waterfalls festooned with ferns and mosses. Some of these streams drop into gaping sinkholes that descend into a vast array of caverns inhabited by albino crayfish, bats and other cave specialists. On the south-facing slopes in the cove, you can explore sunny, limestone outcrops dotted with ancient cedar trees that make you feel like you are on the Mediterranean coast.

In the upland forest on top of the Plateau, the trees do not grow as tall and there is a distinct understory of blueberries, mountain laurel and azaleas. Slow moving streams on the plateau create swamp forest habitats characterized by a red maple – black gum canopy and a variety of ferns. Some of the larger plateau streams have been dammed to create a system of Domain lakes that are inhabited by beavers, aquatic plants and a variety of fish species. Shallow depressions in the sandstone substrate can create small natural pools of water in the forest to which marbled and spotted salamanders make their annual pilgrimage to breed each year. Sandstone outcrops along ridges and bluff-lines make for spectacular views and also provide a unique habitat for a variety of rare, desert-like plants.

These are just some of the amazing ecological communities you can explore and study at Sewanee without ever having to leave campus. This tremendous outdoor laboratory boasts limitless research opportunities for students interested in studying all aspects of field biology and ecology.

The Vernal pool at Pineypoint