The University of Texas at Austin is a vast place, with more than 40 acres of campus containing untold collections, artifacts and treasures. From secret nooks (the lovely Goldsmith Hall courtyard) to unexpected resources (did you know RLM has a telescope on the roof?), surprises can be found all over campus. Our #HiddenUT series shines a spotlight onto UT’s unheralded gems.
This week, small bits of nature come to the fore, with a beehive atop Patterson Hall, a butterfly garden in the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and botanical specimens gathered by none other than James Cook and Charles Darwin.
Bees on a Building
When Professor Nancy Moran moved from Yale to UT Austin last August, she had to figure out a way to bring a colony of 100,000 bees along with her. The integrative biology researcher studies the diversity and function of bacteria in the guts of bees, which share “a number of parallels with the gut microbiota of humans and other mammals, because it is a long co-evolved and specialized bacterial community, and because it impacts the health of the hosts,” she said in an article about her work on LiveScience.com.
So, she recruited a couple of grad students and took a road trip, driving the nearly 2,000 miles in a minivan packed full of bees. To keep the bees from overheating, they kept the AC cranked to the max during the day and left the windows down at night. “It seemed unlikely that anyone would try to steal something from a van full of bees,” said Moran. The bees arrived in Austin with no problems, and now live on the roof of Patterson Hall.
“I have to admit I am afraid of stings,” she said. “In working directly with the colonies, it is usual to occasionally be stung.” But, there is an upside to working with bees: ”We get honey, which is very helpful as gifts to make people worry less about being stung,” she said.
Butterflies in the Field
In some classes, students are assigned readings from a big textbook; others are assigned computer problems or chemistry formulas. But there’s probably only one course at the university in which students are assigned an entire acre of land filled with trees, wildflowers, buzzing insects and birds: Professor Larry Gilbert’s field ecology class at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory (BFL).
The BFL property is comprised of areas of rich natural vegetation, including a native bluestem prairie, old pasture land, former quarry, Firefly Meadow, Pecan Bottoms, Colorado River and juniper woodlands. This diversity has produced records of thousands of species, including at least 163 species of birds, 20 mammals, 373 species of plants, 68 species of ants, 200 species of native bees and a whopping 1,200 species of moths and butterflies.
For the first part of every semester, that acre at BFL becomes a personal laboratory in which students practice methods of field ecology, including learning how to perceive ecological patterns, frame hypotheses, collect data in the field, analyze the data and write professional-quality lab reports.
“I designed the course in 1999, just as life science at the university was being reorganized,” says Gilbert. “When I took ecology at UT in 1964, lecture and lab were combined for three hours of course credit. It was still like that in 1999. I wanted to make the lab a stand-alone course based in the field, and BFL was a perfect venue. In a real sense, I designed a course that I would have wanted to take when I was an undergraduate in the days before BFL.”
A version of this story originally appeared on the College of Natural Sciences website.
Botany Specimens from Days of Yore
Tucked in a corner of the Main Building is the largest collection of Texas plants in the world.
The Plant Resources Center (PRC), with more than 1 million specimens, is the largest herbarium in the Southwest and ranks fifth among U.S. university facilities. And it’s still growing, with some 16,400 new specimens being added each year.
Botanists study variability, explains Lindsay Woodruff, associate curator of the PRC, so they need a large collection of specimens like the one at UT, which is one of the largest in the U.S. “It’s the very basic knowledge of plants, and we wouldn’t be breathing otherwise,” she says.
“The core of everything is understanding variation, so the more specimens you have the better you can understand that variation,” says Tom Wendt, curator of the PRC, in a video about the herbarium. ”They are an enormous treasure trove of data that can be used for studying plant classification especially, which is the core of what we work on here.”
The collection started back in the 1890s, before the first botanist joined the university. But some parts of the collection are even older. The Darwin — yes, that Darwin — and Captain James Cook specimens are from scientifically crucial voyages of exploration to the Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries. “One can almost feel the presence of these giants in the history of science by seeing their specimens,” Woodruff says.