National Geographic photographer – and University of Virginia alumnus – Ian Nichols is now working on a master’s degree in biology at U.Va. He has spent the summer at the University’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, studying and photographing the natural world. The station is located on a remote and nearly pristine mountaintop in Southwest Virginia.

Nichols’ personal photographic creative statement says he seeks “to increase and diffuse knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world’s cultural, historical and natural resources.” His goal is to “capture authentic moments that inspire awareness in others and foster positive change in our world.”

After earning his undergraduate government degree from U.Va. in 2005, Nichols received a grant to study and photograph the use of tools by chimpanzees at a research site in Congo, where he spent a year. In 2008, on assignment for National Geographic magazine, he photographed lowland gorillas in Congo, patiently focusing on the nuances of primate behavior.

Most recently, Nichols photographed biodiversity for the Smithsonian Institution in Gabon, Africa, and took portraits of the orangutans at the new International Orangutan Center in the Indianapolis Zoo.

At Mountain Lake, his research is focused on the forked fungus beetle, to gain insight into the role of social dynamics in evolution. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. and research the role of social dynamics in the evolution of great apes.

He had this to say about his summer at Mt. Lake, and his efforts as a photographer:

“Mountain Lake Biological Station is a unique educational experience. Courses bring the natural world to the classroom and students into the natural world in the field. I have always enjoyed nature, but schools tend to focus on the medical side of biology. At MLBS, I found for the first time the courses that I have always wanted to take – Field Botany, Herpetology, Mycology; the list goes on and on. At the same time, small class size and easy access to the professors allows for a learning experience where the sky is the limit.

“I grew up around photography and resisted it for half my life because it was my father’s profession. Nowadays I always have a camera with me.

“My goal, through my photography, is to bring people back to nature, to remind us of our connection to the rest of life on the planet. I returned to school so I could better understand nature and in the process found my inner scientist. I actually see photography and science going hand in hand; observation is key to both. I am excited as I continue my journey at MLBS.”

Here’s a look at some of the images he’s captured during his time at Mountain Lake:

Mountain Lake students and teachers stay up late to watch a meteor shower. (Photos and captions by Ian Nichols.)

One of the joys of summer is the sound of the spring peepers at night. Pseudacris crucifer is a well-known resident at the station and students will spend nights trying to find and catch them as they call during the breeding season.

A starflower, Trientalis borealis, momentarily enjoys the light, before the light moves on. Spring ephemerals take advantage of the time before trees leaf out to grow. Time is short before the tree canopy blocks the majority of light to the forest floor.

Students in Dr. Zach Murrell's botany course examine plants while on a field trip near the station.

Stream ecology students examine a water snake found while surveying streams around the area.

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Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications