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James Costa - Western Carolina University. Cullowhee, NC, US

James Costa

Professor and Executive Director of Highlands Biological Station | Western Carolina University


Jim Costa's interests include insect behavior and ecology, environmental history and philosophy, and the history of science.



James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication James Costa Publication



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Darwin's Backyard | James T. Costa | Talks at Google Convincing Lyell: Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and the Great Transmutation Debate


Ep. 124 - Darwin's Backyard



Jim Costa is executive deirector of the Highlands Biological Station and professor of evolutionary biology at Western Carolina University, where he has taught courses in genetics, entomology, evolution and biogeography since 1996.

Costa's many interests include insect behavior and ecology, environmental history and philosophy, conservation biology and the history of science. His research has focused in recent years on Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the history of evolutionary thought. He has authored numerous research papers, reviews, magazine articles and seven books, most recently "Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory" (W. W. Norton, 2017) — a finalist for the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Prize — and the co-edited volume "An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion" (Chicago, 2019).

Costa has held fellowships at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study and the New York Botanical Garden's LuEsther T. Mertz Library. He lectures widely in the U.S. and Europe, is a regular travel program leader/lecturer for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and for many years co-instructed Harvard’s Darwin summer program at the University of Oxford. Costa's recent honors include 2017-2019 Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer, the Alfred Russel Wallace Medal (2017) and his book Darwin's Backyard was a Finalist for the AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

Industry Expertise (3)



Writing and Editing

Areas of Expertise (5)

Charles Darwin



Insect Behavior

Evolutionary Biology

Accomplishments (5)

AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books (professional)

2018 Finalist, for Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory

Wallace Medal (professional)

2017 Alfred Russel Wallace Memorial Fund, London

Million Dollar Circle Award (professional)

2016 Sponsored Programs, Western Carolina University

25th Joseph LeConte Scholar (professional)

2015 Georgia Southern University

Distinguished Lecturer Program (professional)

2017-2019 Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society

Education (3)

University of Georgia: Ph.D., Entomology 1992

University of Georgia: M.S., Entomology 1988

SUNY Buffalo: B.S., Biological Sciences 1985

Affiliations (4)

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Linnean Society of London : Fellow
  • Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society
  • Society for the History of Natural History

Languages (1)

  • English

Media Appearances (6)

Jim Costa publishes book celebrating work of scientist and humanitarian Alfred Russel Wallace

WCU Stories  online


Jim Costa, executive director of Western Carolina University’s Highlands Biological Station, located in Highlands, set out to showcase the life of Wallace and celebrate the great works that he contributed as well as his activism that lasted until his death at age 90 in 1913 in his recently published book. In Costa’s book, “Radical by Nature – The Revolutionary Life of Alfred Russel Wallace,” he dives into scholarly research, journals, notebooks and letters to help bring Wallace’s fascinating history to life.

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How Charles Darwin's Garden Inspired the Theory Of Evolution

English Heritage Blog  online


James Costa has gone one step further with his new book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. James spent time at Down House when researching his book and discovered some fresh insights into the ways that Darwin transformed his home into a living laboratory.

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Highlands Botanical Gardens to celebrate 60th Anniversary

The Highlander  online


“We kicked off the anniversary year with a program and pilgrimage to see the beautiful Oconee Bells, which is represented in our logo, in its native habitat,” Biological Station Executive Director James Costa said. “But the big celebration is this fall: we and our many ‘Friends of the Highlands Botanical Garden’ thought the 60th anniversary year was a great time to bring back an annual event much-loved by regional native plant lovers: the HBS Native Plant Symposium.”

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Darwin's Backyard

C-SPAN  online


Biology professor James Costa talked about his book Darwin’s Backyard, in which he chronicles the life, career, and experiments of Charles Darwin.

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Beyond The Galapagos: What Was In ‘Darwin’s Backyard’

WUNC North Carolina Public Radio  online


In his forthcoming book, James Costa examines Darwin’s personal history and how his drive to observe the natural world and collaborate with others led to theories that changed the study of biology.

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Roaches prefer dinner parties to eating alone

ABC Science  online


"At some level there is some cue," says insect behaviour researcher Professor James Costa of Western Carolina University and executive director of Highlands Biological Station. "It could be either seeing, or smelling or touching; and over time it accumulates more and more."

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Event Appearances (5)

An unnatural naturalness? On the nature of humanity and perspectives on the Anthropocene

Humanities in the Age of Globalization conference  Akaki Tsereteli State University, Kutaisi, Georgia


Charles Darwin’s ‘Fool’s Experiments’ – Lessons from an Inveterate “Experimentiser”

40th Darwin Festival Lecture  Salem State University


(R)evolutionary War: Darwin’s Origin & Descent, Scientific & Literary Influence

Dahlonega Science and Literary Festival  Dahlonega, GA


A ‘Central and Controlling Incident:’ Celebrating The Malay Archipelago and the Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace

Linnean Society of London  London, UK


Darwinian Revelation: A Primer to Charles Darwin's 'One Long Argument'

Darwin Day Lecture  University of Delaware


Articles (5)

Myrmecochorous plants and their ant seed dispersers through successional stages in temperate cove forests

Ecological Entomology

2022 Anthropogenic disturbance can decrease woodland diversity in the species-rich herbaceous layer of eastern deciduous forests, and ant-dispersed (myrmecochorous) plants may be particularly affected due to their limited ability to re-colonise secondary forests.

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Four Decades of Table Mountain Pine Demography on Looking Glass Rock (Transylvania Co., North Carolina, USA)


2020 Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens) is an Appalachian endemic that requires canopy-opening disturbance such as fire or logging for successful regeneration.

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Convergence of Social Strategies in Carrion Breeding Insects


2021 Carrion is a highly ephemeral and nutrient rich resource, characterized by extreme biotic and abiotic stressors. We hypothesized that specific constraints of the carrion ecosystem, and especially its nutrient richness, ephemerality, and competition with microbes, have promoted the evolution of social behaviors in necrophagous insects.

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Invasion and high-elevation acclimation of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, in the southern Blue Ridge Escarpment region of North America

Plos One

2020 The red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is a non-native invasive species that rapidly spread northward in the United States after its introduction from South America in the 1930s. Researchers predicted that the northward spread of this invasive ant would be limited by cold temperatures with increased latitude and greater elevation in the Blue Ridge Escarpment region of the United States.

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Social nutrition: an emerging field in insect science

Current Opinion in Insect Science

2018 Nutrition is thought to be a major driver of social evolution, yet empirical support for this hypothesis is scarce. Here we illustrate how conceptual advances in nutritional ecology illuminate some of the mechanisms by which nutrition mediates social interactions in insects.

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