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Biodiversity Blog


Edward Wilson's signature moment in the history of BFL

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 E.O. Wilson in 2003 (Photo: Jim Harrison, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)

Edward O. Wilson passed away on December 26th, 2021. He was a professor of biology at Harvard University with an incredible list of awards including two Pulitzer Prizes. He was a myrmecologist passionate about ants, and often considered the “father of biodiversity.” He was also an inspiration to those who knew him, including Larry Gilbert, Director of the Brackenridge Field Station. Wilson’s passing caused Gilbert to reflect here on the time when Wilson served as champion of BFL when the field station was on the brink of ending.

For me to explain Ed’s impact means we have to start at the beginning. The beginning of BFL that is.

In the late 1880s, there was a push to industrialize Austin with hydroelectric power. A San Antonio banker named George Brackenridge acquired several hundred acres for the dam site at the Colorado River. The dam was completed in 1893, but because of poor engineering, it washed out in a flood in 1900, making the land economically-useless for Brackenridge. As he was already a member of UT Austin's Board of Regents, he donated this land to UT. Of this, 82 acres were centered on the old quarry that became today's BFL.

UT students and faculty wasted no time putting the land to use. Between 1910 through the mid 1960s, they informally used undeveloped parts of the “Brackenridge Tract” for biological studies. When I was a UT student in the ‘60s, Professor W. Frank Blair and others of the Zoology and Botany Departments developed a grant proposal to NSF in 1965. This award funded the creation of BFL, but required a 20-year commitment from UT to not develop the site.  That amount of time is long term for a business cycle, but short term for ecologists.

But when I became Director of BFL in 1980, 15 of these 20 years had already passed. The real estate market in Austin was heating up, making BFL’s central location attractive to developers. Clandestinely, the planning cycle for a post-BFL development on the site was underway. In April 1986, the UT Board of Regents voted to develop the BFL site but retain the Municipal Golf Course (MUNY). Retiring director W. Frank Blair and many other colleagues warned that I was wasting my time to fight for BFL, that it could not be kept. I was then informed by the UT President, Bill Cunningham, that the development of BFL was inevitable.

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Solenopsis phoretica and Pheidole dentata. The tiny Solenopsis is a parasitic species whose females ridge piggy back on Pheidole queens. (Photo: Alex Wild)

We needed to move fast to prove the value of the field station. By then, the imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) had already been detected at BFL in 1981. This prompted me to create the imported fire ant biological control project in 1986, in part to help promote BFL’s worth as a center of ­­­­research for Texas. A second of my initiatives involved hosting a 20th Anniversary Celebration on site in 1987. In a move that was as educational as it was political, I invited the Dean and Provost to participate so they might learn first-hand the value of a near-campus field station. I had to prove the value of assets like BFL environment biology studies and the longterm impacts decades into the future.

The plan for BFL’s 20th birthday was to hold a symposium on site featuring undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral researchers to discuss their work at BFL. The event would be outdoors with famous visiting speakers, the Dean and Provost, and a representative of the National Science Foundation program that funded BFL’s establishment. They all would give brief talks on the importance of BFL and all field stations in a program entitled The Biological Diversity Crisis and the role of University Research Stations.” 

One of my speaker choices was Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich. I had done my PhD with Paul starting in 1967. I did part of my dissertation research at Jasper Ridge, a thousand-acre site near Stanford’s campus. Paul was a role model for securing such valuable university lands for long-term research, as well as being a well-known and persuasive writer and speaker on conservation and the environment. Because of his belief in the importance of field stations, Paul agreed to speak at the event probono.

I believe that in the not-too-distant future a much larger share of biological research, from biochemistry to ecology, will be conducted at field stations that consist of nature preserves and have ready access to laboratories equipped to analyze and monitor processes at every level of biological organization, including the molecular. Field stations will also serve as key centers of education at all levels. Universities and other institutions wise enough to invest in such stations now, even in the face of limited financial resources, will assure themselves of a much larger share in the future action.

Edward O. Wilson

Foreword to The Value and Sustainability of Field Stations,

National Academies of Science, 2014

Repeated from his address to the 20th Anniversary of BFL, 1987

My other choice was Ed Wilson. Ed was an appropriate choice because he had replaced William Morton Wheeler as the leading ant biologist of North America and the world. Ed also had a passion for field stations and conservation biology.

Additionally, because of Ed’s work with ants, he would be a suitable choice to match BFL’s own remarkable history with ants. BFL has a great ant biodiversity, over 55 species, including interesting discoveries by Wheeler and his students, as well as those of my own students like Don Feener in the 1970s and 1980s. The arrival of the imported fire ants also prompted a resident ant research group. With this connection and Paul Ehrlich’s commitment to speak, I had no difficulty convincing Ed to help out with our BFL “educational campaign.” Like Paul, Ed also offered his time probono. Ed arrived by train for the event, gave a timeless speech, which, thanks to colleague Rob Plowes, is now digitized in this YouTube clip. In true E.O. Wilson fashion, this small sample in the left table of his writing of his speech is worth reading and repeating.

The success of the 20th Anniversary event led me to propose a series of entomological workshops on the Hymenoptera. These 6 weekend workshops covered ants, wasps, bees, chalcid parasitoids and non-chalcid parasitoids. Dean Boyer, likely encouraged by Ed Wilson’s speech, provided enough financial assistance to import a few visiting experts to cover groups not covered by local talent from Texas A&M University, UT Austin and UT El Paso. Sadly, we missed the chance to again have Ed return for another anniversary event, and to check out BFL’s current ant fauna and see two newly discovered social parasitic species of his favorite ant genus, Pheidole (see photo above). Known only from BFL, both species are new to science. They were recently discovered in the old quarry by ant biologist and the Biodiversity Center’s Entomology Collection curator, Alex Wild, who will formally describe and name them.  

Much has happened following this 20th Anniversary Party, including initial expansion of the field station network and establishment of the Biodiversity Center. One of the most significant events was the arrival of an amazing woman and loyal UT Alumnus named Casey Stengl. She attended BFL events, and became inspired to donate her property near Smithville for field biology. In my dual role as Chair of Zoology and Director as BFL, I became her voice with Provost Fonken who had initially rejected her donation letter based on its wording. I successfully negotiated new wording that suited Casey and UT Austin and in 1992, Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station (SLP) came to life, and was managed and administered under our BFL Research unit. This made BFL and SLP in effect, UT’s first field station network. More recently, the field station network has expanded again to include part of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

With Ed’s recent passing, I was prompted to listen to his 1987 speech once again and think about his expression of hope.  As a foremost communicator of science, Ed has written many influential pieces on the critical connections between humans and nature and had radical, bold visions on how to safeguard our ecosystems and biodiversity. These visions were built on a foundation of scientific endeavors, which are precisely the role of field stations. We must keep his wise words in mind whenever we consider our vision for field stations.


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    Gilbert introduces speakers at BFL 20th event. Left to Right (sitting): James Edwards NSF, E.O. Wilson, P.R. Ehrlich, Dean Robert Boyer UT CNS.

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    Wilson speaking to UT Provost Gerhard Fonken.

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    The Al Dressen Revue.

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    The clearing made in 2006 by the late John Crutchfield for the 20th event. Now in 2022, trees obscure the Colorado river.

Pets as Invasive Species: Cats
Citizen-Scientists Project at Stengl Lost Pines

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