Texas Exes Alcalde

UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world's weirdest cactus.

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Fox Squirrel(Sciurus niger)

Sorry, Longhorns. There is no albino squirrel at The University of Texas.

Today every UT student knows the legend: catching a rare glimpse of an “albino” squirrel on the way to an exam means you’ll get an A. The squirrel—which is usually referred to with a single mythical ‘he’—is said to roam the East Mall, and we’ve spotted him at the Alumni Center more than once.

While there may be several white squirrels on campus, they aren’t really albinos, says UT biologist David Hillis. “It’s a color variant, not a true albino,” Hillis explains. Albinism is a genetic anomaly in which an animal has a total or partial lack of pigment. It’s much more rare—occurring in one in 100,00 squirrels, according to a 1997 Northeastern Naturalist study—than other color variants. Because albinos have poor vision, they’re at a real disadvantage in the wild.

Fox Squirrel

fig. 7

The fox squirrel on campus is an example of a rare color variation.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Sarles

Not sure whether an animal is really albino or not? “Look at the eyes,” Hillis says. Albinos have red, pink, or even blue eyes, while brown or black eyes indicate pigmentation.

Still, a few facts never got in the way of a beloved campus myth. There’s the Albino Squirrel Preservation Society, a tongue-in-cheek student club founded in 2001 (its creed: “To dedicate myself to the protection of all squirrels”), and of course the squirrel is active on Facebook and Twitter. “I’m glad I don’t have opposable thumbs,” @texassquirrel tweeted recently. “I’d have to sign too many autographs.”—Rose Cahalan

Fox Squirrel

Illustration by Jason Holley

The squirrel—which is usually referred to with a single mythical 'he'—is said to roam the East Mall, and we've spotted him at the Alumni Center more than once.

Welwitschia(Welwitschia mirabilis)

During the greater part of Jim Mauseth’s Intro to Botany course, students learn about the behavior and life cycles of typical plants. But for Mauseth, the high point comes when the focus shifts to the strange world of cacti. “We spend all semester teaching the kids how plants grow,” he says. “Then we go, ‘and here are the aliens!’” Welch Hall’s impressive rooftop greenhouse is filled with more than 300 species of spindly, spiky, and imposing cacti. Mauseth points out a few of the more thrilling varieties that have adapted to their harsh environments in unique ways. Fachieroa, a slender, branching, column-like cactus that reaches the ceiling, has a peculiar trick. For some unknown reason, it flowers only on one side. Mauseth says it would be like a human aging on only one side of his body. “Imagine that,” he says.

When we reach the very un-cactus-looking Welwitschia, Mauseth stops in his tracks and faces me with a proud fatherly grin. “This is an incredible mutation,” he says. This lone male specimen arrived at UT in 1975, the same year Mauseth did. Native to Southwest Africa, it’s a very odd plant that can live up to 1,500 years; few universities bother to cultivate it. From its base, which resembles a large walnut, only two leaves will ever grow. They continue to grow long and curly throughout the plant’s lifetime. Mauseth and his team have written the dates directly on the leaves to chart their progress. The base—which is unlike anything in other plants—sits exposed on top of a tall, narrow pot, and its 8-foot leaves spiral down onto the floor. Scientists are not sure what exactly the base is, but it’s not a stem and it’s not a root. If you came across a Welwitschia in the desert, Mauseth says, the base would be hidden underground. All you would see is a big pile of curly leaves sitting in the middle of endless sand.

Mauseth just acquired 25 Welwitschia seeds from the Huntington Botanical Gardens in California. The seeds are very difficult to get, and he’s hoping that several will be female.

As he shows me around the greenhouse, I notice each plant is more curious than the next. Just when you think you’ve wrapped your head around the characteristics of cacti (fat, succulent, microscopic leaves), another species shows up that completely upends the rules. It’s easy to understand how Mauseth has never tired of studying this fascinating family of plants. After all these years, he’s still a cactus guy. “Some people like orchids,” he says, “some people like roses. I like cacti.” —Dorothy Guerrero

Lifespan Infographic

Infographic by Melissa Reese

Welwitschia

fig. 1

The Welwitschia plant in its native habitat.

Photo courtesy Thinkstock

"We spend all semester teaching the kids how plants grow. Then we go, 'and here are the aliens!'"

Red Imported Fire Ant(Solenopsis invicta)

What’s worse than a sugary-looking mound of crawling, bulbous, blood-red fire ants? Zombie fire ants.

The natural predator of the imported fire ant is the female phorid fly, a tiny insect that chases the ants as they march along a trail in search of food. The fly lands on her target and quickly injects one of her eggs near the ant’s thorax. The ant reacts like it has been shot—becoming partially paralyzed and confused before limping back to the mound. After developing, the larva cruises around the ant’s body, feeding on its blood and growing larger, eventually making its home inside the ant’s head and devouring its jaw muscles for fuel. At this point, the ant’s brain is still functioning, but the larva can control the body and walk it to a safe nesting place. Hence the term “zombie ants.” The head eventually falls off and roughly 45 days later, an adult fly emerges from the poor ant’s decapitated shell.

Larry Gilbert, BA ’66, has devoted more than 30 years to studying this grisly scenario as director of UT’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory on Lake Austin Boulevard. He and his colleagues have been researching the effects of introducing the phorid fly into the U.S. to combat the dreaded fire ant.

Imported fire ants—not to be confused with native fire ants—most likely made their way to our front yards as stowaways on ships from Brazil and Argentina in the 1930s. Because they had no natural predators here, the ants thrived and spread west to Texas and beyond. While most people are searching for a way to eradicate the species or “nuke ’em,” as Gilbert says, he and his team believe in playing the long game. Their research suggests that deploying their natural enemy, the phorid fly, is a safer and more economical way to control them than pesticides. In South America, where fire ants and phorid flies coexist, fire ants aren’t considered persistent pests.

When he was a fourth-grader in Jones Creek, Texas, Gilbert remembers taking one wrong step with his broken foot into a pile of fire ants. They swarmed his cast and buried themselves deep between his toes. The pain and burning, he says, was unbearable. When asked why he has devoted so much of his life to the study of fire ants, Gilbert’s eyes brighten and a weathered smile spreads across his face. “Self-defense,” he says. —Dorothy Guerrero

Zombie Ant

Illustration by Jason Holley

—FACT—
Fire ants don't just sting; they bite you, too. Before jabbing their stinger into a human body and injecting toxic venom, fire ants anchor themselves to us by clamping down with their mandibles.

Zebra Longwing Butteryfly(Heliconius charitonius)

High above the Forty Acres, on the roof of the Patterson Building on 24th and Speedway, there is a Central American rainforest. Larry Gilbert created this environment—and a similar habitat at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory—in the 1970s to study the relationship between butterflies and their preferred host plants, passion vines, where they lay their eggs. Theresa Freiburger, BS ’10, a full-time technician, is the caretaker of the flora and fauna that fill the large greenhouses here. By the time August rolls around, these glass structures become punishingly hot and humid, but it doesn’t seem to bother Freiburger. She cheerfully works away, grateful not to be behind a desk.

As she leads me on a tour through the greenhouses, she catches butterflies by gently pinching their wings, and then shows me the unique colors and patterns that mark each one. Freiburger mastered this technique as an undergrad studying ecology, evolution, and behavior, and today she can grab butterflies without brushing off a single scale. They hang between her fingers calmly, like kittens caught by the scruffs of their necks.

One especially striking species is the aptly named zebra longwing, whose black-and-white striped wings flutter wildly around us. These butterflies have an unusually aggressive mating ritual, known as pre-pupal mating. Male zebras attach themselves to a female’s cocoon, and hang there waiting for her to emerge. “They will not let go,” Freiburger says as she shows me two males glued to a brown pod hanging from a vine.

Zebra Longwing Butterflies

fig. 2

Male zebras attach themselves to the female's cocoon, and hang there waiting for her to emerge.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Freiburger

At the field lab, Gilbert guides me through the maze of tropical vines that grow in the lab’s gymnasium-sized greenhouse. It is sweltering. Through the orange trees and the flapping butterfly wings, he leads me to a fig tree as old as his storied career at UT. The odd sound of a croaking green tree frog fills the air while we stand and watch the busy insects around us. Gilbert says he can’t be in the rainforest all the time, so he brought it here to Austin. “They’re pretty happy in here,” he says, staring at a hovering zebra. “And I am, too.” —Dorothy Guerrero

The butterflies hang between her fingers calmly, like kittens caught by the scruffs of their necks.

Zebra Longwing Butterfly

Illustration by Jason Holley

—FACT—

Some species of passion vines are known to mimic the appearance of butterfly eggs by producing small, round glands on their leaves. This behavior fools butterflies into thinking that another insect has claimed the leaf, and ultimately saves the plant from becoming a caterpillar's next meal.

Live Oak(Quercus virginiana)

At The University of Texas, no tree is more iconic than the live oak. Usually wider than they are tall, with majestic, winding branches that can grow to rest along the ground, live oaks offer much-needed shade to vast swaths of the Forty Acres. They are also a living record of University history—from the Battle Oaks, which at 300 years old are UT’s oldest trees, to the Constitution Oak, planted in 1937 to mark the U.S. Constitution’s 150th birthday.

In recent decades, UT officials have gone to great effort and expense to save cherished oaks from the path of construction projects (as editor-in-chief Tim Taliaferro chronicled in the award-winning Alcalde story “The War for the Trees,” January|February 2008). In 2003, 13 live oaks were painstakingly moved to make room for the Blanton Museum; 16 were transplanted during the 2006 Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium expansion. “People really attach themselves to this tree,” says Jim Carse, UT’s urban forester. “Live oaks are the bread-and-butter tree of the campus.”

Now some Texans are worried about oak wilt, a deadly fungal disease that has killed thousands of oaks in 74 Texas counties. It hasn’t yet been spotted on the Forty Acres, but the impact could be devastating: 66 percent of UT’s more than 5,000 trees are live oaks. “There are things you can do to slow it down,” Carse says, “but there is no cure.”

To protect against the threat of oak wilt, Carse and his forestry team have diversified by planting dozens of tree species. “When almost your entire canopy is one species of tree, you run the risk of an insect or a disease wiping out all those trees,” he explains. “It would look like an atom bomb went off.” He’s also betting that an aggressive strategy—including sterilizing pruning equipment, improving soil quality, and closely monitoring tree health—will keep UT’s canopy safe. —Rose Cahalan

Live Oak Campus Map

A map of trees on campus, with live oaks in yellow.
Map courtesy of Jim Carse
Illustration courtesy of Bio Diversity

—FACT—

The Goose Island Oak in Rockport, Texas, is among the world's oldest and largest live oaks. Estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, the tree has a trunk circumference of 35 feet.

Live Oak

Illustration by Jason Holley

Monk Parakeet(Myiopsitta monachus)

Travel two miles north from UT’s main campus to the Whitaker Intramural Fields, and you’re likely to see students playing soccer or ultimate Frisbee. But look up at the 50-foot steel light poles that illuminate their games, and you might do a double take. In a scene more tropical than Texan, hundreds of green parakeets flit back and forth above the fields, squawking as they build enormous nests atop the poles.

Lime green with sapphire-tipped wings, orange beaks, and cheeky little faces, the footlong parakeets are undeniably cute. And they look nothing like any other bird in Central Texas.

Brian Stillman, RecSports’ assistant director of facility operations, says that 2,000 UT students pass through Whitaker Fields on a busy day. He estimates that they share the fields with nearly that many parakeets—a huge flock by any measure. Stillman has seen students pause their softball practices to snap photos of the eye-catching creatures.

Unlike most invasive species, monk parakeets don’t pose a threat to native plants and animals. UT biologist Peter English wonders if the Carolina parakeet, a U.S. native that was hunted to extinction by 1900, paved the way for the monk parakeet. “Not many people know that the United States did once have a native parakeet,” says English, who studies biodiversity. “Maybe this species has filled its ecological niche.”

Native to Argentina, monk parakeets were imported to the United States as pets in the 1960s. Escapees bred in the wild, and thanks to their ability to tolerate cold, monk parakeets now live everywhere from New York City to Chicago to Spain and Belgium.

They’re not always welcome. Because the birds roost atop power lines and light poles, they can sometimes cause power outages. In Leonia, New Jersey, a particularly large nest on a utility pole cut power to more than 3,000 homes.

Thankfully, the Whitaker Fields flock hasn’t shorted any circuits so far. UT maintenance workers even go out of their way to avoid disturbing the nests, Stillman says. Instead of simply climbing up the light poles to change bulbs, workers now use a boom lift so they can hover near the nests without touching them. “Then the guys wait to change the bulbs until the birds fly away,” Stillman says. “They respect them.” —Rose Cahalan

Parakeet Illustration

Illustration courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Parakeets

fig. 3

Monk Parakeets perched on a limb.

Photo courtesy Thinkstock

Switchgrass(Panicum virgatum)

As scientific research subjects go, switchgrass is not the most convenient. This giant Texas grass can reach 8 feet in height and consume an entire square meter of space. Its sheer size makes it cumbersome to manage, and when UT researchers harvest the plants at the end of each summer, they invariably fail to squeeze the enormous grasses into 30-gallon Home Depot lawn bags.

“Switchgrass is very unwieldy and not the easiest plant to work with,” says associate biology professor Christine Hawkes. “But it’s important.”

At UT’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Hawkes and her research team have grown a switchgrass forest inside a greenhouse. They believe that fungi living inside this cumbersome species could hold the key to understanding how plants survive or die in drought—a question that seems more pertinent than ever as Texas faces a hot, dry future.

“It’s very likely that we’re headed for a drier world,” Hawkes says. “So we want to understand how plants respond to drought and how we could ameliorate some of its effects.”

All plants have fungi living symbiotically inside them, Hawkes explains. When a fungus grows on a plant’s roots, it gets sugar and the plant gets help absorbing nutrients. Different fungi can have varying effects on plants; Hawkes is searching for those fungi that will help the switchgrass resist drought. In a sterile greenhouse, her team has tested 20 fungi under a wide range of weather conditions.

Results aren’t in yet, but the research holds long-term potential for agriculture. Some researchers have even suggested a fungal fertilizer that could inoculate plants against drought. “In the long run, this kind of project can help us grow food and maintain our lawns,” Hawkes says. “Ecology matters.”—Rose Cahalan

"In the long run, this kind of project can help us grow food and maintain our lawns."

Switchgrass

fig. 4

Switchgrass growing in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center research greenhouse.

Photo courtesey Cristine Hawkes

Barton Springs Salamander(Eurycea sosorum)

Think you’ve logged a lot of hours in the cool waters of Barton Springs? Laurie Dries, BA ’93, probably has you beat. A biologist for the City of Austin, Dries scuba dives in the springs every Thursday, rain or shine—even in the dead of winter. What are she and her team doing down there? Counting salamanders.

Dries’ job is to manage and evaluate the wild populations of salamanders in the pool and its adjacent subsidiary springs—and it’s a job that suits her well. "I like being underwater," she says. "There is so much diversity in freshwater. All of this variation can be under a single rock."

The Barton Springs salamander grows to about 2.5 inches in length and can live up to 11 years in captivity. One of only a few fully aquatic salamanders, the Barton Springs species relies on cold, clear, fast-moving water, and it is most often found at the outflow of the springs. The salamander’s red, external gills resemble a wild mane, and its body can range in color from gray to purple to yellowish-brown.

Since 1997, the salamander has been on the endangered species list. Populations of the amphibian are directly affected by consequences of Austin’s commercial growth, like runoff and pollution. However, these days Dries says that the most imminent threat to its survival is something every other living thing in Texas is dealing with: drought. “I think it’s amazing that the salamanders are hanging in there,” Dries says. “But they are.”

The salamander has survived droughts before, but we don’t know how large the population was before the counting began. But Dries says she’s optimistic now that people are paying attention to the animal’s plight. “People care,” she says. “If they didn’t, then Barton Springs would just be a mud pit.” —Dorothy Guerrero

"I think it's amazing that the salamanders are hanging in there. But they are."

—FACT—

In 1993, UT biology professor David Hillis and Paul Chippindale, PhD '95, were the first to formally describe Eurycea sosorum. Previously scientists were aware of a salamander living in the springs, but Hillis and Chippindale were able to scientifically demonstrate that it was distinct.

Salamander

fig. 5

The Barton Springs salamander displays its mane-like gills at Barton Springs.

Photo courtesy Roger Shaw

Blotched Watersnake(Nerodia erythrogaster transversa)

Under the cover of darkness, Travis LaDuc, PhD ’03, passes out tall rubber boots and headlamps to his students. They suit up and wade into Waller Creek behind the Alumni Center, bending down to peer in the crevices around rocks and tree roots. When someone sees a flash of movement, there’s no time to hesitate—plunging in a hand as fast as possible is the best way. “If you seize up and the snake sees you coming, he has a chance to bite,” LaDuc explains. “And these snakes are pretty bitey.”

LaDuc’s Field Herpetology class is not for the faint of heart. Since 2006, the UT lecturer and Texas Memorial Museum assistant curator has been taking students snake-hunting in Waller Creek. Their target is the blotched watersnake, a common species LaDuc describes as “big, brown, smelly, and mean.”

The only species of snake known to live in Waller Creek, it’s 2-3 feet long and non-venomous—but still packs a painful bite. LaDuc has been bitten dozens of times. “But I worry more about the back end than the front end,” he says. “Their musk is like a skunk’s.”

So why study this ornery species? “Because they persist in an environment that has been tremendously altered by humans,” LaDuc explains. “Why and how do they survive when other snakes no longer do?” Learning the snakes’ survival strategies, he explains, may help show how drought and pollution are changing the creek.

LaDuc and his students have tagged 106 snakes with microchips and tracked eight with radio transmitters to study their movements. Before releasing the snakes unharmed, they also take blood samples for a future DNA study. The researchers are now crunching six years of data with the goal of publishing a paper later this year. Results aren’t in yet, but one thing is certain—the blotched watersnake is one tough critter. “These guys take shelter under concrete barriers, bridges, whatever they can find,” LaDuc says. “They persist.”—Rose Cahalan

—FACT—

Snake Identification Tip from Travis LaDuc

Q: How can I tell if a watersnake is venomous?

A: If you're close enough to tell, you're too close.

Watersnake

fig. 6

A blotched watersnake lounges in its natural habitat.

Photo courtesy Ronnie Pittman

"If you seize up and the snake sees you coming, he has a chance to bite. And these snakes are pretty bitey."

Red-Eared Slider(Trachemys scripta elegans)

Stop by UT’s iconic Turtle Pond on a sunny spring afternoon, and you might see something odd: a pair of turtles—one small, one larger—circling each other in the water. Every few seconds, the smaller turtle darts in and vigorously slaps the larger one in the face.

Longhorns are protective of their Turtle Pond, and when a student or professor witnesses what looks like turtle violence, David Hillis’ phone will ring. The UT biology professor is the unofficial guardian of the Turtle Pond, and he dispels Longhorns’ turtle misconceptions several times a week.

In a slightly weary voice, Hillis recounts some of the most common inquiries: “People will call or email and say, ‘I’m worried because the turtles are fighting,’ or ‘There’s a turtle running away from the pond.’” What looks like slapping is actually normal behavior, Hillis reassures. It’s a springtime ritual in which the male turtle slaps the larger female, hoping to impress her enough to mate with him. And as for runaways, they’re usually a good sign: female turtles take to the grass to lay their eggs.

In 1999, the Turtle Pond and its adjacent garden were dedicated in memory of the 1966 Tower shooting victims, but the pond has been around for much longer. It started out as a research facility for the biology department—until people began abandoning pet turtles there. In the 26 years he’s been watching over the pond, Hillis has had to find homes for the unwanted pets. Non-native species can introduce disease and overcrowd the native turtles, he explains: “It’s a real problem. We have a hard time finding places that will take them in, because no one wants these extra turtles.”

Besides the occasional orphan, the pond is home to four native turtle species: the red-eared slider, the spiny softshell turtle, the Texas river cooter, and the common snapping turtle. The slider—by far the most common species in the pond and the most popular pet turtle worldwide—is a medium turtle ranging from 8-13 inches in length. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Hillis estimates the pond may hold from 40-50 turtles.

During winter freezes, Hillis hears from students and staff who are worried about the turtles. “I tell people they’re just fine, burrowed in the mud,” he says. “They’re wild animals and they can take care of themselves. What they have to worry about more often is us.” —Rose Cahalan

Red-Eared Slider

Illustration by Jason Holley

"They're wild animals and they can take care of themselves. What they have to worry about more often is us."

—FACT—

Thinking of getting a pet turtle? Don't, says David Hillis. Here's why:

They require constant sunlight, making them hard to keep indoors.
-
Turtles may carry salmonella, so they could make you sick.
-
Many turtle species are illegal to keep as pets.



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