David Hillis

Approximately 140 turtles were removed from the largest of three ponds north of the Tower on Monday morning in order to drain and clean the pond. 

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

It’s summer vacation for more than just UT’s students — the inhabitants of the turtle pond will be taking a trip for the month of June while the pond is cleaned.

David Hillis, an integrative biology professor involved in the cleanup, said approximately 140 turtles were removed from the pond on Monday morning. Hillis said he expects to find more turtles in the pond once it is drained. Out of the three ponds on campus, the cleaning crew will clean and drain the largest pond. 

Hillis said the dirty pond does not pose a health risk to the turtles, but does create an annoyance for them as algae begins to grow on their shells. 

“Right now there has been a lot of accumulation of organic debris, sediment and algal growth,” Hillis said. “Eventually it gets to be too crowded for them so they have a hard time getting enough sunlight.”

The ponds, located north of the UT Tower, were constructed in the 1930s. In 1999, former President Larry Faulkner dedicated the pond and surrounding garden to the victims of the 1966 Tower shooting. According to the University, the pond was last cleaned in 2002.

Volunteers including students, faculty and staff from the University’s Texas Natural History Collections met to transport the turtles to the Brackenridge Field Lab. Capturing them one-by-one, volunteers loaded the turtles into wading pools.  

Kelsey Hornung, Texas Natural History Collections research associate and volunteer, said the turtles will be monitored to see how many species they have now and which species of turtles are repopulating and why. 

“We preserve specimens to learn about them in the future — their eating habits, location, why they sometimes leave areas,” Hornung said.

Hornung said approximately only 40 of the turtles will be returned to the pond to allow for repopulating. The other turtles will remain at the Brackenridge Field Lab.

Wading through the murky pond, volunteers began to pull out the large pieces of algae that were emitting a smell. Kevin Pan, biology major and volunteer, said his interest in marine biology and aquatics are what drew him to the cleanup crew.

“The turtles are doing fine, but the pond is starting to smell when you walk by so it is definitely in need of a cleanup,” Pan said. 

Hillis said the pond plays an educational role for students on campus. 

“Everyone enjoys the turtle pond, both for educational reasons and people sitting around studying, looking at the turtles and watching them,” Hillis said. “It is a good chance to see a little bit of nature right here on campus.”

This story has been updated since its original publication.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

“And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be,” read the closing lines of Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, “Yertle the Turtle.” Although Dr. Seuss’s work is littered with memorable aphorisms, this one rings particularly true when read in the shade of the idyllic UT Turtle Pond. In the midst of a stressful finals season, it’s helpful to have a place like the pond for quiet self-reflection. UT students, faculty and staff are lucky enough to have the micro-ecosystem on campus.

But the future of the turtles and their pond is not as secure as it once was. Those noble, sleepy-eyed creatures have lost their long-time steward, David Hillis, a professor in the integrative biology department. Hillis has volunteered at the pond, taking care of the turtles and other inhabitants of the mirco-ecosystem since 1998 until earlier this year. He told The Daily Texan in an email that back problems have forced him to curtail his involvement with the pond.

“The biggest problem I faced was people releasing pet turtles into the pond, which disrupted the system and sometimes introduced diseases to the population,” Hillis told the Texan, recounting the difficulties of maintaining the ecosystem. “There are also issues with run-off into the pond, maintaining water quality, maintaining water level, maintaining suitable plant populations, maintaining sunning sites for the turtles, accumulation of silt and debris and occasional vandalism.”

Although some of the turtles are content to sun themselves on rocks and eat French fries thrown into the pond, some species are more aggressive. According to the Texas Exes website, botany professor emeritus Guy Thompson reported that the larger snapping turtles have been known to attack pigeons that wander too close to the water, so that they appear to “suddenly disappear below the surface with a frantic flapping of wings.” Hillis confirmed that of the four or five native Texas turtle species in the pond at any given time, there are usually a few snapping turtles.

As Texan writer Christine Ayala reported last May, UT Facilities Services maintains the pond for the most part. Although the biology department has been heavily involved in the pond’s upkeep in the recent past, the garden has no regular group to maintain it. I reached out to the office of the dean of the biology department to see if anyone had assumed Hillis’ righteous mantle in an official capacity, but no one was aware if a faculty member was involved in the pond’s maintenance.

Although we should be grateful to Facility Services for the role they play in maintaining the pond, this campus treasure should be appropriately cared for by an official sponsor that understands the delicate, natural processes that govern the Turtle Pond and its surrounding garden. The turtles and other organisms that make up the pond community have done amazing work toward creating an oasis of nature on campus for students and faculty, and we should acknowledge the responsibility to return the favor.

Matula is a finance junior from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @chucketlist.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Chicken nuggets and fries are a common lunch on campus, including for the hundreds of turtles swimming in the Turtle Pond’s murky water. 

Directly north of the Main Building, the pond crawls with more than 200 turtles of at least four different species. Most are red-eared sliders native to the area.

Curtis Drosche, a Facilities Services mechanical maintenance technician, oversees the pond’s water levels and keeps the habitat clear of trash and debris.

Drosche said the pond essentially sustains itself. No office on campus takes care of the individual turtles or provides food, although people tend to feed the turtles their lunch leftovers. Drosche said two of the inhabitants are alligator turtles that have been known to catch unaware birds. He said the other turtles have similar appetites to the students on campus.

“They’ll eat anything,” Drosche said. “People feed them a lot of scraps when they pass by after lunch. They don’t like lettuce though, they’re spoiled, they like what the kids eat.”

Drosche said throughout the 11 years he has taken care of the pond, a lack of communication between Facilities Services and the College of Natural Sciences regarding responsibility for the pond has blocked improvements to the area. 

“Nobody really knows who is in charge of it, and nobody seems to want to take responsibility, so we just do what we can to keep the water flowing and keep up the area,” Drosche said. “We’ve wanted to replace a few parts of the piping to make the system run better, but we’re not turtle experts, so we don’t know what might harm them.”

Drosche said he has asked about draining the pond to do a thorough inspection of the water system for years, but he has not been able to connect with biology experts to determine the best time of year to remove the turtles or where they could be housed during the process.

Several fish live in the pond including bass, catfish and goldfish, according to Drosche. When the pond was introduced in the 1930s, it included just two species of turtles, but now the pond is swimming with several pet turtles and fish that have been dumped there by folks on campus over the years.

Integrative biology professor David Hillis said he has volunteered to manage the turtle population since the late 1990s, although he is not responsible for the pond.

“We try to keep only native species of turtles in the pond so that they are appropriate for our weather conditions,” Hillis said.

Hillis said the turtles breed and lay eggs around the pond and courtship behavior can be observed often.

“I get lots of calls from people who are concerned that the small turtles are ‘picking on’ the larger ones,” Hillis said. “It looks like the little turtles are trying to slap the big ones in the face. In fact, the small turtles are males, and the larger ones are females, and the males are displaying their feet to the females, and tickling the females with the male’s long fingernails, which is part of their normal mating behavior.”

The turtles commonly lay their eggs around the pond in grassy areas under trees and bushes — even across the street at adjacent buildings.

Integrative biology professor David Crews said he specifically studies the reproduction of the red-eared slider. Crews said the temperature of the eggs during incubation determines the turtle’s sex.

Drosche said his team maintains the water levels with a recirculation system that takes water from the lower pond up to a bog area with foliage. From there, the water flows back down to the turtles. The pond water uses this recycled water unless levels get too low and water must be added.

“We clean out each of the little areas with waterfalls where debris will build with leaves, sticks and trash, and check on it every other day to see how things are running,” Drosche said. “We know other people try too. We come some days, and it has been cleared. There is just no communication between them and us. It would be nice if there was a main group that wanted to take charge.”

Researchers say the Texas longhorn has an ancestry that can be traced back thousands of years to the Middle East and India. 

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

While students may be familiar with the sight of Bevo at football games and rallies, several UT researchers took a look at a side of the Texas longhorn seldom seen: its genes.

The research group, comprised of biology professor David Hillis, Ph.D. candidate Emily Jane McTavish and researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia analyzed thousands of genetic markers of the Texas longhorn. The group determined the longhorn has a global ancestry that can be traced back over thousands of years to the Middle East and India. 

“We were studying the ancestry of a group of cattle descended from cattle brought by Spanish colonists [to the New World] in the late 1400s,” McTavish said. “Texas Longhorns are descendants of these cattle.”

“I was working with a very large data set, 50,000 markers for 1,500 individuals,” McTavish said. “It is challenging to work with and analyze this much data.”

The research group determined that approximately 85 percent of the longhorn’s genome is “taurine,” descended from the aurochs, an ancient ancestor of cattle that were domesticated in the Middle East between 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

“Genomic data can allow us to understand the evolutionary history of organisms,” McTavish said.

Hillis specializes in the breeding of Texas longhorns at the Double Helix Ranch, which has three locations in Texas. 

“Texas longhorns are colorful, diverse and exhibit complex social behaviors,” Hillis said. “They use their horns for protection and social interactions. All of these traits make them interesting and fun to be around.”

For the research group, the analysis of the Texas longhorn genome emphasizes the importance of genomes in the field of biology.

“It is fascinating that Texas Longhorns have a long and complex history,” Hillis said, “that connects them to both of the major domestication events of cattle, some 10,000 years ago.”

Printed on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 as: Researchers decode longhorn genomes 

A state agency has delayed a determination about a creationism research institute being included on a list of charities state employees can donate to through paycheck withdrawals.

The State Policy Committee heard a complaint during a meeting Friday, lodged by integrative biology professor David Hillis, against the Institute for Creation Research being included on the State Employee Charitable Campaign list. The list includes almost 500 charities and registration for the campaign runs from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.

The committee decided to delay a decision on the case until all charities are reviewed for next year, beginning with a meeting March 23, committee chairwoman Janice McCoy said. Next year, the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative panel that examines state agencies to determine whether they should be revised or closed, will also be reviewing the policy committee, she said.

“The general consensus of the policy committee was that there are probably several organizations and charities that are part of our master list of charities that potentially need to be reviewed,” said McCoy, who is also chief of staff for Texas Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.

The Institute for Creation Research conducts “scientific research within the context of biblical creation,” according to its website. The ICR did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The Dallas-based institute has been included on the campaign’s list for two years, McCoy said. By law, charities on the list are required to provide “direct or indirect health and human services,” according to the campaign’s website.

Hillis said the ICR does not meet the requirements set by law for charities on the list.

“The ICR is plain and simply a religious group that promotes only a particular religious viewpoint, and has absolutely nothing to do with ‘direct or indirect health and human services,’” Hillis said.

Hillis said he was disappointed the policy committee did not take action on the case but hopes for a resolution in the future.

“At least the problem seems to be in the open and on the table for discussion now,” he said.

Integrative biology professor Daniel Bolnick said the ICR undermines the research he does.

“My job is to understand and conduct research on how evolution happens,” Bolnick said. “I certainly have a special interest in seeing that the teaching of evolution is done properly and adheres to what we know scientifically about the subject.”

Mike Markl, who served as chairman of the committee until Oct. 31, says the requirements for a charity to be included on the list allow for a broad range of services.

“It’s more broad than I think most people would think,” said Markl, who is also payroll director of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. “It speaks to education, an educational component. It speaks to social implementation and socialization.”

Markl, who served on the committee for seven years, said challenges to affiliates on the list have occurred infrequently. Markl recalled an example where people opposed to hunting challenged a charity that provided hunting instruction and education to young people.

The campaign raised more than $9.8 million last year. Markl said he was proud of how the campaign was able to raise money by making the process easier for state employees.

“There’s cancer research, heart research, there’s diabetes research,” Markl said. “There’s all sorts of very beneficial, helpful charities that help people in need.”

Printed on Monday, December 5th, 2011 as: Agency reviews creationist group's place on charity list

My colleagues, integrative biology professors David Hillis and Eric Pianka, object to grade inflation and have expressed so through firing lines that recently ran in The Daily Texan. Hillis notes that inflated grades are unfair to excellent students. Indeed. But deflated grades are unfair, too, when students receive lower grades for their work than is currently normal, making them appear to potential employers as less able than they are.

This wouldn’t matter if grading standards were similar among teachers. Now, with the appearance of MyEdu.com, we can see how variable grades are among different sections of the same class. Grades for BIO 301M, which I traditionally teach, ranged from 7 percent, 10 percent and 15 percent As in the most sternly-graded classes, up to 38 percent, 39 percent and even 65 percent As at the other end of the scale. The proportion of Cs ranged from 2 percent and 8 percent up to 40 percent, while Ds and Fs ranged from 1 percent to 22 percent.

If students in these classes were performing equally, some of my students making Cs could have made As in a different BIO 301M class. Even more extreme, all of the C students and some of his D and F students in one class would have made As and Bs in a different class.

Can we tell whether students in these classes were equally able? I think we can. I have taught two BIO 301M classes back-to-back each fall for the past 10 years or more, and I give both classes the same true-false, computer-graded tests. Each year, I can compare the performances of two groups of students given the same lectures, the same text reading and the same tests. I decide in advance what percentage of students will get each grade (previously 30:30:30:10). When I apply this to each class separately, I observe that the test scores at each grade cutoff are never more than 1 percent apart between classes. Why is this? It is simple statistics: These classes are large enough samples of the student body that they are good representations of it. So, the differences in BIO 301M grade distribution that we see in MyEdu.com reflect differences in professorial policy, not differences in student ability or effort. This is seriously unfair.

My policy can result in a student scoring 250/360 at end of semester making a B and a student scoring 249 making a C. The difference is meaningless, so it’s bad luck for Mr. or Ms. 249.

An alternative is to seek natural gaps in scores, as Pianka advocates for. But, while I observe that allocating As to 30 percent of the students in each of my classes results in near-identical test-score cutoffs between A and B grades, I also observe that the positions of gaps remain variable even in large classes taking the same test. If I used gaps, I’d get widely differing GPAs for my two classes, even though the students’ overall performance is the same.

Publication of GPAs must already be generating intense competition for access to “easy” classes. Winning these contests will have nothing to do with student academic ability, so unless we reform our grading policies grades will continue to be unfairly diverse. However, any kind of standardization could only apply to large classes, as small ones are genuinely diverse in student composition. If I teach five students and they all flub a test, I think to myself, “Oh dear, I have five under-performing students. Is there flu going around?” On the other hand, if I have 110 students and their mean test scores are low, I think, “Oh dear, either that was a very hard test or I haven’t been teaching effectively.” Whether my test was hard or my teaching ineffective, in neither case should I penalize the students, which is why I decide in advance what percentage of them will receive each grade and stick to it regardless of test scores.

Monetary exchange rates used to be arbitrarily confined to fluctuate within specified limits, a procedure colorfully known as the “snake in the tunnel.” Our students would benefit from such a snake in classes that are large enough and predictable enough to merit it. Could we professors be cajoled into harmonizing our grading policies? I suspect that the answer is a quote from the anonymous professor in Ph.D. Comics: “Don’t tell me what to do!”

Singer is a professor of integrative biology.