The University of Texas at Austin
  • Campus & Community

    #HiddenUT: There’s More to UT Than You Know

    By Cory Leahy
    Videos by Thomas Humphreys
    Published: July 30, 2014

    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

    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.

    • Quote 2
      Greg Weston said on Aug. 7, 2014 at 11:09 p.m.
      Hidden Gems Indeed! My wife and I hope to be able to take an in person look at these gems the next time we come to visit our daughter on campus. I look forward to the next installment in the series.
    • Quote 2
      Gregory said on Aug. 7, 2014 at 4:20 p.m.
      The term "Forty Acres" is colloquially used to refer to the University as a whole besides, is stating the campus is more than 40 acres any less accurate than saying the total acreage is over 400 acres?
    • Quote 2
      David said on Aug. 7, 2014 at 7:49 a.m.
      Fantastic the diversity and richness of species that possesses BFL. It is a vast field for students interested in ecological research.
    • Quote 2
      Jedf said on Aug. 5, 2014 at 7:11 a.m.
      Like Steve said, it was more than 400 acres, so why this difference?
    • Quote 2
      Schonna Manning said on Aug. 1, 2014 at 1:38 p.m.
      UT-Austin is also home to the largest and most genetically diverse assembly of microalgae in the world, the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae. Microalgae are remarkably beautiful and many are model organisms for biochemical and ecological research. Currently, algae are been explored for their commercial potential, including feedstocks, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, water remediation and CO2 sequestration. Every year, UTEX sends thousands of cultures to researchers around the world, and we provide free cultures to UT laboratories and undergraduate research programs.
    • Quote 2
      Steve said on July 31, 2014 at 3:22 p.m.
      More than 40 acres? last I checked it was more than 400 acres (~423)
    • Digg
    • StumbleUpon
    • Facebook
    • Google Bookmarks
    • LinkedIn
    • Twitter
    • Print
    • email

    Related Topics

    , ,

  • Top Videos

    • ...
    Inventors of the Year Transforming Medical Field
    Inventors of the Year Transforming Medical Field
    [Video] One created tamper-proof technology for drug tablets, the other is developing...
    How to March: Secrets of the Longhorn Band
    How to March: Secrets of the Longhorn Band
    [Video] Have you ever wondered how to play an instrument and be part of a football-field-sized...
    Five Great UT Ideas
    Five Great UT Ideas
    From 3-D printing to a battery used by millions, these inventions from UT researchers...
    10 Things You Need to Know About UT System’s Next Chancellor
    10 Things You Need to Know About UT System’s Next Chancellor
    Longhorn and Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven was named the sole finalist to become...
    How Do You Reinvent Health Care?
    How Do You Reinvent Health Care?
    Start by re-imagining medical education, says Dell Med School Dean Clay Johnston....
    Preventing Earthquake Damage
    Preventing Earthquake Damage
    A team of Cockrell School engineers is working in New Zealand to understand soil...
    The Psychology of Home Decor
    The Psychology of Home Decor
    Is your bedroom scattered with laundry? Adorned with photos? Do you and your partner...
    Reflect, Explain, Apply: Transforming Chem 301
    Reflect, Explain, Apply: Transforming Chem 301
    Jimmy Wadman went from failing to teaching in Chemistry 301, a course transformed...