[MUSIC PLAYING] MATTHEW HARE: My name is Matt Hare. I am faculty in Department of Natural Resources and chair of the committee that oversees the curriculum in the Environmental Sustainability Sciences major here.
I am delighted to be able to introduce David Hillis to you today. David is here as part of the AD White Professor-at-Large Program. And with that program, we'll keep him coming back up till 2019.
He's an evolutionary biologist from the University of Texas at Austin. He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and moved around a bit in his youth. He lived in San Antonio, lived in the Congo in Africa where, I understand, built his love of amphibians and reptiles, and then in Baltimore where his parents had faculty positions at Johns Hopkins.
David studies evolutionary relationships of phylogeny and what those relationships can tell us about evolutionary processes. He's studied this at really every imaginable level that you can. So he's studied the diversification of species at the organismal level and the diversification of genes within species. He's used viruses as an experimental system for studying relationships and phylogeny and evolutionary processes. And he's also tried to work out methods by which we can infer the entire tree of life.
He was first author on an edited volume called Molecular Systematics, which when I was in graduate school was right next to-- I was in a genetics lab so we had Maniatis, the tome, the Bible for figuring out how to do a Southern blot and then Molecular Systematics to figure out what to do with the data both actually chapters on how to collect some of the data and how to work with molecular data to infer phylogenetic relationships. A very influential book.
So David's work is not just at the theoretical level and methods development, but in his career he's looked and worked on applications in forensics, biodiversity, and conservation, as we'll be hearing about today. He does a lot of work with, I think I would say, building appreciation of evolution and teaching evolution. In fact, he's written and contributed to a couple of introductory biology textbooks, one of which we use here. He does a lot of work in computational biology and in molecular evolution.
David has a lot of accolades of which I'll just mention three. In 1999, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, the genius award. in 2000 inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and 2008 into the National Academy of Sciences.
But David is a regular guy. He's a rancher. Well, maybe not so regular. His ranch is called Double Helix Ranch. He breeds Texas Longhorn cattle, and that's a very interesting aspect of what he does and who he is.
I had fun looking through David's record and materials. I was impressed when I was reading about the Longhorn cattle that he breeds and his description of inbreeding and inbreeding depression and yet the need to inbreed to breed for particular traits. It was such a lucid and accessible description of that.
And what I loved-- since he was obviously writing for a lay audience-- is that at the top of the page on most of his web pages is "If you don't understand something here, email me. I want to know what you don't understand, and I'll fix it." So that's the kind of communicator that David is. And it's my--
I do want to mention actually before I finish here, there is a dinner at the Alice Cook House on West Campus for undergraduate students. Come and see me after the talk if you're interested in that. Starts at 6:30 and 7:30 with David. It's a dinner discussion.
With that, it's my pleasure to introduce David to hear about "How a Salamander Saved a City."
DAVID HILLIS: All right. Thank you very much.
All right. It's very much my pleasure to be here. This is a fun story that I'll talk about an endangered species success story, which is something I think we don't hear about often enough. We often hear about kind of endangered species horror stories.
But it's a story about how scientists and the public worked together to fight some special interests with very strong political connections both to save the species as well as really to save an entire city in the process. And I think that the story has some relevance and connections to our current political divisions that we're seeing in the country at large right now. But I think that there's a positive view about how we can resolve some of these tensions and work to result in a win-win situation.
When I usually talk to Austin audiences, I start by saying, imagine you could be transported in time back from the present to a quarter of a century ago, in 1990. In 1990 in Austin, there was a huge political rift that was developing.
On one side, people were arguing that we really needed to figure out ways to encourage economic development and population growth. On the other side were people who were arguing that, well really even if your main interest is in population growth, we have to think about the future and how we're going to support that population growth with adequate water supply and, in addition, make a city that's really worth living in. So you kind of have the rapid, uncontrolled growth faction the one hand and the controlled growth, smart growth faction on the other with a focus really on protecting water and protecting green spaces.
When I present this to Austin audiences and I say, OK we live in this big, vibrant city today, and if you could go back and advise that Council of 25 years ago, which of these sides would you argue? Those audiences just burst into laughter because there's been incredibly high growth in Austin. Since 1990, it's increased by about 10-fold in population from a city of about 200,000 to a city of about two million today.
The real problems it faces are definitely on this side in terms of having enough adequate water to support the city and support that kind of growth. So it would really be a no-brainer if you could go back and advise this Council about from the past. But it was very much an argument at the time.
Just to reiterate that, for the past five years in a row, it's been the fastest metropolitan growing area. You just look out across the city and see nothing but building cranes and skyscrapers coming up. So it's gone really from a small college town to a large metropolitan city and has all the growth problems associated with that. It's expected in the next 25 years to double again to be about four million, so we really have to think about how we're going to accommodate all those people.
25 years ago, when people talked about water, the people that wanted uncontrolled growth said, well we have plenty of water, and that was true. For a population of 200,000, there was plenty of water. But you think about it, for a population of two million, you need 10 times as much water. So that was a real challenge for the future of Austin.
A lot of people love to live in Austin. It's a beautiful city and has a lot of advantages, which is why there are so many people moving there. You ask people why they're moving there, and they list various things like quality of life. They do list the strong economy and the fact that it's a vibrant, diverse city. It has great entertainment, music especially, and really beautiful parks and recreation.
And then there's kind of a weirdness factor. Austinites are very proud of-- the most popular bumper sticker in town is "Keep Austin Weird." And it's just part of the whole diversity that Austin embraces, likes to embrace.
But there's also problems about the city. The biggest problems are ones that are associated with growth like traffic, and crowds, and cost of living. Then, of course, the other things that are kind of uncontrollable like weather. The summers are very hot. And there are lots of plants that produce allergens.
Then we have this big problem with water shortage. This is a view of a section of the upper regions of what's actually the Colorado River. It's hard to tell because there's barely a trickle of water left in one of our recent severe droughts. So we have these periodic droughts that really affect the ability for humans to live in this area.
In fact, if you look at Austin, if you look at Texas-- so here's the location of Austin-- its location is in no way an accident. It was actually a planned city. It was planned there because Austin was originally settled by Anglo settlers over in this part of the state, and Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, wanted to push development to the west. So he went out as far in the western frontier as he could where he could still have enough water to live, basically. There was adequate water resources. And they planned the city in Austin.
Then all the development occurs right along this edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas, which is to this region up here.
The green actually maps out the aquifers, the Edwards and Trinity aquifers. So these are the water supply that actually allow people to live in Texas, either directly or indirectly. San Antonio is the largest city in the world that gets all of its water directly from the ground. They just pump the water directly up from the ground. They have no surface water reserves.
These aquifers feed the springs and rivers and surface water that feeds the rest of Texas. So on this part of the state, it is very dry and very low populations. There's aquifer up in the panhandle, the Ogallala, a Pleistocene aquifer that will soon be dry. At that point, agriculture and populations of humans will pretty much cease to exist up in that region.
So this settlement of this area in central Texas-- there's a series of cities and towns that go right along this border of the Edwards Plateau. And every place that there's a city, with for very good reasons, there are major springs at those places. So these were the places people could settle and easily get water without even having to drill a hole in the ground. The water was just basically flowing up out of the ground, so people settled there.
It was interesting to think about what's happened to some of these springs. This is not a photograph from the 1800s. It's not actually Salado Springs, but the descriptions of Salado Springs in the 1800s in the Chisholm cattle trail days when people were running cattle up from Texas to Kansas, they would stop here and let the cattle drink at Salado Springs. They described it as a fountain that went eight feet in the air. So water was just pouring up out of the ground-- eight feet in the air in this giant fountain.
I'll show you, this is a picture of Salado Springs today. This is where the water was coming up eight feet out of the water. It still flows but just barely. Now it's just a trickle just coming up out of the water.
So the water pressures have greatly decreased in the area as people have used more and more and more of the water resources. The reason it flows like that-- this is a cross-section now of this aquifer. So out to the west in the Edwards Plateau, the recharge zone is where the water flows into the ground. It goes into this confined aquifer. And the water pressure here-- this is in a confined aquifer-- so the water pressure is produced by this surface level.
So you drill a hole down or punch a hole or if there's a natural hole, water comes up basically up to that level. So you have water flowing up out of the ground. So it was in this region where all the initial settlement of central Texas occurred.
This is the major part of the largest part of this artesian zone in the blue. So San Antonio and Austin is right along here. Then there's a line that separates to the west that is called the bad water line where this is very saline water in the underground waters here. So basically you can get water up, but it's not drinkable. So there's low population densities this way and then low populations to the west where you're outside of this artesian zone.
In addition to all of the interest with the water for humans, it was also a biologically very diverse region, lots and lots of endemic species, many of them associated with this aquifer. There's a lot of species that live in these aquifers that don't live anywhere else in the world.
That includes some of the salamanders. This is another endemic that is not associated with the aquifers that's a terrestrial salamander that also lives in the same region. So it's a biodiverse region anyway.
But then this is an example-- this was the first of these underground salamanders that was discovered. It was discovered in late 1800s when people began drilling wells. They drilled the well for a fish hatchery in San Marcus, and some of these salamanders popped up out of this artesian well. So they sent them to the National Museum, and Steinerger, he saw that they were clearly an undescribed species, but he didn't even know what family of salamanders to put them into. They were so unusual looking.
This is a blind salamander. It has no image-forming lenses and obviously has this very strange morphology. They spend their whole lives underground, and so people had never seen them before.
Surprisingly, there were also salamanders in the springs on the surface, and those weren't discovered for some reason until quite a bit later. So it wasn't until the '30s and '40s that people began realizing that there were also other endemic salamanders that lived in these various springs around these settlements all along the Edwards Plateau.
That was pretty much the state of knowledge when I moved to Austin as assistant professor in 1987. I was interested in studying these salamanders because there was very little known about them. In particular, I was fascinated because right in the middle of downtown Austin-- this doesn't look like a city because it's a city park, but this is literally right in the middle of town-- is a large spring called Barton springs. It's a favored swimming hole and public park.
I soon discovered that there was an undescribed species of salamander right here in the middle of Austin. That was a surprise because there had been literally dozens of herpetologists get their PhD At the University of Texas, Austin over the years. They all went swimming at Barton Springs. They were swimming with an undescribed salamander. So I thought this was fascinating.
But a lot of people told me, yeah, you don't really want to work in that group of organisms. The reason is because you think about the ideal model organism and the advice people give to graduate students about finding a good model system. They say, well, you should think about things that are abundant, and they're easily cultured, and they're easy to collect and observe, and you don't have to worry about any permits, and they have really rapid growth in a short generation time, and you can do genetics on them really easily, they have a sampled full genome.
When I think about the salamanders, none of these things is true. Right? They're endangered. They're rarely seen. They're very difficult to raise. They're difficult to collect and observe. There are lots of permits and regulations. Very slow growth. Very, very long generation time. They have a huge genome. No one's ever sequenced a salamander genome. I mean, they're so big that no one's ever gotten a single salamander genome sequence.
So basically, you'd be crazy to work on these things. But I kind of liked them. So I decided to work on them anyway and began studying them.
Here's just a few pictures I pulled out of my files. You can see I haven't changed a bit in 25 years. Right? That's me in late 1980s, almost 30 years I guess. To find these things, I had to go down in caves and go down through all the caves to the aquifer level. Then once you reach aquifer, you're unlikely to see a salamander.
But you spend all day going down there. So we'd set a trap. So here's a salamander trap. We'd just bait it with a little bit of cat food. The cat food attracts invertebrates, and the invertebrates attract hopefully a salamander.
So you go back out of the cave. Then a week later, you make your way all the way back down, and hopefully, there's a salamander in there. So that's how we started collecting these salamanders.
I used every opportunity I could to access the aquifer, which means going down a lot of wells, anyplace if-- this is not work you want to do if you're scared of snakes or spiders because everything falls into these things. You go down in there, and you can put down traps or sample these wells. Also, you get to go to a lot of really beautiful spots because the places where the springs pop up are also salamander locality.
This is one of my collaborators. I started working with Andy Price who worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Texas Parks and Wildlife was interested in them because of the potential that many of these things were endangered.
So we found this undescribed species at Barton Springs, a very popular swimming site for Austin. While we were still working on it, we realized that it was critically endangered in part because a lot of the activities associated with using Barton Springs functionally as a swimming pool.
So what is an endangered species? When we say it was an endangered, what do I mean by that. Well, usually in this country when we say it's a federally listed endangered species, we're referring to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. That defines an endangered species as a species likely to become extinct throughout all or a large portion of its range. And if it's listed under the act, then it receives special protections by the federal government designed to help it recover.
There's nothing in the act about it being a popular organism or a big charismatic organism or anything like that. But the truth is that there's a lot of political resistance about listing one of these things. It's really easy to list wolves and bears and eagles and things like that. It's much harder to list the less it's something that's popular in the public, the harder it is to list.
So the first thing we started doing was to start working with some conservation groups to, first of all, to educate the public about the salamanders and to get them excited about the salamanders. Well, if you've never seen a salamander, then why would you be excited about it? So we started making T-shirts and frisbees and we got places of business to name themselves after the salamander and all sorts of things that got Austinites excited about salamanders.
You can see here's the salamander dressed up in fins, going swimming with them in the Barton Springs pool. These Barton Springs salamander Frisbees became quite the collector's item. I haven't been able to put my hands on one in recent years.
One of the things I discovered was that the pool-cleaning methods that were being used by the city were almost about to wipe the salamanders out. Every week they would come, they would lower the dam on the pool, lower the water levels, then use high pressure fire hoses to clean out all the little crevices and gravel and everything. And they use copper sulfate to try to kill the algae.
So they were treating it like a swimming pool, right? It was a natural spring with an entire community of endemic organisms, lots of endemic species there besides just the salamander. So our first challenge was actually working with the city and trying to convince them to adopt alternative cleaning methods.
So I created a liaison committee between UT and the city of Austin to try to develop these methods. We had lots of volunteers from the public that we would adopt to try these different methods out. And they did. The city did adopt these methods.
Here's one of the things we do. We put up barriers so you could-- the real problem they face is that the shallow surfaces in the pool where there weren't springs would become really slimy from all the diatom growth and other things. So we had to figure out a way to clean that off without actually disturbing the salamander habitat. So we did develop those approaches, and the city began to adopt it, initially very reluctantly, but later on with a lot of enthusiasm. And it turned out to really help things a lot.
We began enlisting a lot of citizen help for the springs and for the salamanders and then actually engendered a lot of community effort about the springs in general. So in June of 1990, the City Council had a hearing about some development that was projected to take place-- about approving a large development over the recharge zone for the springs. They have a public hearing period, so they met as they usually do about 6 o'clock in the evening expecting the public hearing to last maybe 30 minutes and then they were going to vote to approve it. So they had all come out publicly saying they were going to approve this.
Well, they had so many citizens sign up that the meeting lasted all night. It lasted until the next morning. At dawn, an exhausted City Council voted to disapprove the development.
That created a huge amount of public interest. It was sort of an initial success of fighting city hall and fighting some of these proposals that were endangering, not just the springs which was the real public focus, but really this entire aquifer system that supports the city of Austin.
Out of that, there was a conservation group that formed called the Save Our Springs Coalition that became very active in protecting the salamander and also protecting the springs, more generally. We also, through the Save Our Springs Coalition, submitted a formal proposal to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Barton Springs salamander as an endangered species. This happened in 1990.
Under the law, the Fish and Wildlife has six months to make an initial finding and then another six months to make the final finding. So it should be one year to make the final. Keep that in mind. 1990, so they should have made a decision on this by 1991. You'll see the time scale isn't quite like that.
There was enormous amount of opposition that rose against this, largely from the developers who were claiming that if this were listed, this would be catastrophic to the economic development of Austin. All economic development would cease, and it would completely ruin our ability to develop a vibrant city of the future.
So as I said, 1992, the Save Our Springs Coalition actually wrote and developed something called the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which would restrict development over the aquifer, restrict development over the recharge zone, and protect the aquifer. The City Council of that time was unanimously opposed to this ordinance, but it was a citizen initiative that came forward. The vote for this-- it was actually the largest turnout they had ever had for a city ordinance-- that represented, at the time, about half of the registered voters of Austin.
You can see it was overwhelmingly approved despite the complete unanimous opposition by the elected government at the time, almost by a 2 to 1 margin. So this was approved. The development was restricted, and largely the aquifer became protected as a result of this very strong ordinance.
The rest of the state of Texas did what we call Austin bashing in Texas, which means that whatever Austin wants-- they can't pass any legislation at the state level that is specific to Austin, but they can pass legislation for something that only applies to Austin as long as they don't mention Austin, the name. They can say you can't have any kind of water protection ordinance for any city that begins with an A and ends with an N, for instance. So the state started fighting this, so there was this battle between Austin and the state about whether or not Austin could protect its own natural resources.
Also as a result of this, the following election, all of the City Council members who had been opposed to environmental protection were kicked out of office. Austin elected an entirely pro-environment slate of candidates to the Austin City Council. So they completely turned around Austin's approach as a city to environmental protection.
Finally, now two years after the proposal, Fish and Wildlife Service came out with their preliminary finding. All the biologists supported the biological data that we reported and said that, yes, that it should be an endangered species. That was the preliminary finding.
It's not a final finding. You still have a public comment period that allows all the politicians and the developers and everybody else to get involved, supposedly for six months. We're in 1992 now. Lots and lots of negative press. Initially, Austin's local paper, the Austin American-Statesman, almost every article that came out about the salamander had a spin on it that was in some way negative.
I'm going to tell a lot of this story in newspaper headlines. Here's one of them. "New Cry for the Springs. Save the Salamander. Pool may be Off Limits if US Agrees." No biologist, no conservation officer, no one from US Fish and Wildlife, no one from anywhere ever made the suggestion that they would close the pool if you protected the salamander.
You read the article, and you see well who is suggesting that? Well, guess who it was? It was the developers, right? Because they wanted to scare the public away from this. It had nothing to with closing the pool. What it would do is restrict the development and force the development and onto non-sensitive areas that weren't quite over the recharge zone.
Shortly after this came out, the newspaper put an editorial where they actually suggested that citizens should go out and kill all the salamanders and literally make salamander tacos out of them to prevent them from being listed as endangered or to wipe them out before they could be listed as endangered. Kind of hard to imagine that that kind of thing was being suggested.
A lot of this negative press engendered resistance from groups you wouldn't think. The Parks Board, in 1994, recommended that they chlorinate Barton Springs Pool. Imagine that. It's like this beautiful natural ecosystem that's loved because of its biodiversity. And they proposed that they turn it into a chlorinated swimming pool. And that was the Parks Board. So there was a lot of negativity, a lot of negative press about this.
This is about the time we finally got the species description on this done. Here's the species description. The Barton Springs salamander-- we named this Eurycea sosorum. That name "sosorum" is kind of interesting because if you read the description, we named it in honor of the citizens of Austin, Texas. Efforts to protect the quality of Barton Springs result in the passage of this citizens' Aquifer Protection Initiative. That was called the SOS, Save Our Springs Ordinance. So this name "sosorum" literally means "the salamander of the SOS-ers."
Initially, we had actually quite good support in the state capitol. At that time, Ann Richards was the governor of Texas. I loved Ann Richards as a governor. She was really quite a amazing woman. She was socially progressive, environmentally progressive, a champion of women's rights, and she was governor of Texas. Can you imagine that? That's almost unbelievable to think about today.
How in the world did she get elected? It's interesting. It's an interesting parallel to what's going on today. Her Republican opponent was leading in the polls and was expected by everybody to win the elections. Shortly before the election, he was reported as making a number of comments that were disparaging and inappropriate about women and especially comments about rape.
Texans basically had had enough of it. They said that's just not appropriate behavior for our governor. So progressive Texans of all genders, but especially women, decided I'm not voting for that guy, this creepy guy. I'm going to vote for Ann Richards instead. So she won the election.
For a while we actually made enormous progress in a lot of different areas including environmental protection and social progress. She was quite a popular governor, but she wasn't popular with everybody. If you look at this magazine cover, there were speculation that she might become the first woman president US because she was doing so well in Texas of all places. People loved her compassion. Her compassion was actually quite popular.
But who didn't like her? She was really disliked by the religious right. She was really disliked by oil and gas industry. And she was really disliked by development industry because of her stances on environment. So there was a lot of money that went into the next election and a lot of political machinations.
So people thought, well, everyone really likes this compassionate aspect of Ann Richards, but we need to get a really true conservative in, meaning somebody that was going to be anti- all of the things that Ann Richards was for. So they created what they called the compassionate conservative, and that was, of course, George W. Bush.
Whatever else he was, he certainly wasn't passionate about environmental issues. He became really a champion about keeping the Barton Springs salamander from being listed as an endangered species.
It's interesting if you're assistant professor at a state university, it's usually kind of a good thing to have the governor actually know about your research. But in this case, if the governor knows about your research and is actively fighting every aspect about it, it can be kind of worrisome when you do things like come up for tenure or promotions.
So the politicians began to weigh in. Here's more newspaper headlines. "State Calls for--" It's been three years now. Why isn't it endangered yet? Well, we need more study. We have to study it. That's kind of the first line of argument. We don't have enough data. Yeah, it lives underground. It's hard to study. There are things that take a long time to figure out. That could delay it for decades.
Suddenly, we start hearing from the Department of Interior that they're delaying the rules. They kept delaying and delaying the rules. What's going on exactly there? It became pretty clear when Bush came out publicly in opposition to the salamander. He was making it very clear. He was writing letters and working with the Department of Interior to keep them from listing this thing because it would inhibit development in Texas.
Then came the headline-- the same day this came out-- the editorial in the paper that's the headline that, I think, is the most amazing headline I've ever seen in my life, which was "Salamander Stirs Calls of Morality and Communism." Now, there are a lot of things you might be able to say about a salamander, but I guarantee you, they have no political leanings whatsoever. They argue that these poor salamanders are communists, which is what people started doing-- that it would be communist to protect them. You can really see how far things had gone.
Then in August of the following year, so another year of delay, the real bad news hit which was there was an announcement that the salamander been pulled from endangered consideration. It was not going to be listed. The paper even says how surprising this was. "Surprising Announcement, the Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt said his Agency will Withdraw the Proposal." Why was it surprising? Because all of the biologists' reports to the Department of the Interior were all public. We knew what they said. Everyone of them supported the listing. They all said this was an endangered species. So clearly, this was political pressure.
The other thing I'm going to do repeatedly here is I've got several quotes from Yogi Berra who died last year. He's famous for a lot of his sayings. I do this in his honor because I'm not a Yankees fan, but Yogi Berra is the one part of the Yankees that I really ever liked. And now he's dead. "It ain't over till it's over."
They weren't going to list them, but there was already public outcry. What the state did is they negotiated with Fish and Wildlife, and there was going to be a panel of experts to decide what to do about the salamanders. They weren't going to be listed, but they were going to convene a panel of experts.
Here were the conditions for this panel of experts. Nobody who has studied salamanders, nobody who is from central Texas area, nobody who is involved in environmental issues. In fact, they had no experts that knew anything about the system that were going to be the experts talking about what do about the salamanders. It was largely political appointees and developers and people that were non-biologists on the panel.
They did put in one token biologist. They went to Oklahoma and found an amphibian biologist who worked in amphibian physiology, Vick Hutchison. I know Vick, and he's a good competent biologist. He didn't really work anything on these salamanders, but he was going to be the one biologist. So he's kind of my one chance to do something about this.
Well, they convened this panel and had a meet. They met completely in secret, but they, under public pressure, they decided to allow the press and the public to meet with this panel one time-- 8 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday morning. They figured they wouldn't get anybody to come out for it. I showed up at 7:00 and waited until they opened up and started having people sign up to ask questions. So I was the first person to ask a question.
The other thing I did was before that, I contacted Vick Hutchison. I said, look, I want to make sure you have got all the data on this. I'm not going to tell you what to say, but if I ask you a question about the salamander, will you answer it honestly? He said, sure I will. Of course, I'll look at the data, and I'll answer honestly. I said that's fine. That's all I can ask.
So I asked him-- my question was, you've reviewed the data on the Barton Springs salamander. Can you give us your professional opinion about whether or not you think it's endangered? Well, this panel had been asked specifically as part of their official findings to not say anything about the endangered status of the salamander. But they didn't tell them they couldn't answer questions from the public. So this was a perfect opportunity.
Much to his credit, Vick answered the honest answer which was, "In my professional opinion, the Barton Springs salamander is the most endangered species of invertebrate in the United States." This was not what they had planned for this panel at all. And this were the headlines in all the papers. They say, panel experts say the most endangered species. And they had just said we're not going to list it.
This caused quite a political uproar. The following month, the Save Our Springs Coalition then filed suit against the Department of Interior, alleging that the Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, had bowed to politics and ignored the scientists from his own scientists when he refused to list the Barton Springs salamander.
That was the allegation of the lawsuit. It went to court. It went to federal court. As the information for the court proceeded, then the information that we already knew to be the case began to come out. Here's a newspaper article. "Babbitt seems to have rejected advice from the salamander." Big surprise. Anyone who had followed it knew this, but this was all coming out now in the courts.
Then the following spring, the judge made his ruling on this. He ruled that, in fact, they had broken the law. They were supposed to make the decision about endangered species entirely based on the science. Instead, they did it entirely based on politics and ignoring the science.
He didn't tell them they had to list it, but what he said was you violated federal law, and you have to make your decision solely based on the best scientific data as the law stipulated. Once that was done, then the outcome was clear because the scientists-- there was only one set of information. It's not like anyone doubted the data in this case.
So a month later, finally now seven years after it was proposed, it was finally listed as an endangered species. Y'all know what happened next, right? Austin just-- all development ceased. It became a ghost town. Everybody left. It became a completely empty hole. And nobody lives there anymore.
Of course, that's not what happened. It was just the opposite. What it did was it forced smart growth into areas that weren't sensitive on the aquifer. Most importantly, it allowed the water supply to be protected, and that allowed there to be enough water for us to actually experience the kind of growth that Austin has actually seen.
Oddly, the people who are pro-growth should have been fighting for environmental protection and water supply all along of course, which seemed kind of obvious. So protection of the salamander meant protection of Austin's water supply and also its green spaces, which is a big part of why people want to live in Austin. You know, they like the city and all the music and everything, but the fact that there are adjacent green spaces is a real draw to the city as well.
So the city completely turned around. Once it was listed, just having that listing-- you would think, well, so what? It's listed. What does that mean? Well, because it was listed and because there was now federal law and federal resources behind it, suddenly Austin turned around and started fighting for its water supply and fighting for the protection of the salamanders.
Among the other things, they built a breeding facility for the salamanders in Austin. This is the beautiful artistic mosaic of a Barton Springs salamander on the side of this salamander breeding facility. And they partnered with the Parks and Wildlife Department and US Fish and Wildlife. They hired full-time biologists to be able to work in watershed protection and work in some of the biology and the endangered species associated with this. They restored habitat and ended up protecting Austin's water resources.
This is just an example of one of the things the city biologists are doing. This is a weekly scuba survey. This is now the most intensively studied, well-known salamander anywhere in the world. In part, it's because of this wonderful resource that exists and that Austin really covets. So it is Used now as a tool for watershed and spring protection.
To give you an idea of one of their projects. This is their weekly surveys of one of the springs in which it occurs. While they were messing around with trying to list it, the salamander was continuing to decline. By the time they listed it, it was almost gone from the spring. You would occasionally see a salamander, but very few.
Then the city began restoring the habitat of the springs, and look what happened to the populations. They really increased dramatically. Now, they go up and down a lot. Why is there so much fluctuation? That fluctuation turns out to be related directly to the quantity of water flow.
This is another population in the main pool. You still see there more salamanders there, but still this really high fluctuation of numbers. That's associated with water flow. This shows water flow at the springs.
We go through a wet/dry cycle that's basically El Nino, La Nina, El Nino, La Nina, El Nino, La Nina. It's pretty regular. These low parts are getting lower and lower every year. So now the effort is-- we realize the part in red is dissolved oxygen. The blue is discharge in cubic feet per second. The red is dissolved oxygen. The more flow there is, the more oxygen there is. And the more oxygen there is, the more reproduction that the salamanders have. So they go through big population booms during high water flow and then crashes in low water flow.
The real worry was that for years, these have been getting lower and lower and lower and approaching when they get to there, the spring is dry, and they're no more salamanders. Now, the effort has been to try to correct some of those conditions about the use of the water so that these lows are gradually going back up again. Hopefully, we won't ever get to the point where it dries completely.
One of the biologists works on the captive breeding program, and she's a critical part of the story because after studying the salamander intensively-- doing these scuba dive surveys and everything for 10 years-- she brought in a salamander to me and said, what do you think this is? I looked at it and thought, what is that thing? It looked like this. This doesn't look anything like a Barton Springs salamander.
But this is in this incredibly well-studied population of salamanders, the most studied place on the Earth for salamanders. Could there really be two species here? How do you actually answer a question like that?
These are two pictures that, I think, kind of attach to my meaning here. This is Henry Fitch-- was a biologist at University of Kansas. As an undergraduate, I took a semester off and went on a trip with Henry Fitch to Central America.
I could catch almost any organism and bring it to him and he could tell me something about it. That allowed me, once I knew what it was, to connect it to the literature. People like Henry Fitch are dying out quickly. There's not very many people like him in the world that can know something about everything.
On the right is a picture of a tricorder from a few centuries from now where from the start from the movie series or the TV show Startrek, Spock would whip out his tricorder any time he landed on a planet and immediately know all about all the life forms that exist on the planet. I've been really interested in developing technology that would actually allow us to do something like that like a tricorder. You can't call it a tricorder because that's a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures, as I quickly found out.
We'd call it a Biocorder of Life. Really all you'd have to do if you could do these things, you could just isolate a little bit of DNA from an organism you'd want to identify, rapidly sequence a few target genes, and then place those within the whole framework of the tree of life. Then you'd either find out it was something we knew about and identify it, or you'd find out it was something new, but you'd know exactly what it was related to.
People do this kind of thing all the time. The only part that hasn't been completely solved yet is putting them all together in a little handheld device that you can carry around with you as you go around. I'll show you how this works with this new salamander that Dee Ann found at the springs one day.
Here's a tree of life diagram that shows the relationships across 3,000 species from throughout the tree of life from animals, and plants, and fungi, and protists, and bacteria, and archaebacteria. I made this diagram years ago. It's kind of a joke because we live on a really big campus at University of Texas, and students are always wandering in. I'm on the first floor right by the front door, and they'd always say, well, where am I?
So I thought I'd make this to make it clear where they were. So help them out. Here you are. Every year, there are students staring at it going, ay, is this a map of the campus? I really don't know.
But it's useful because we're beginning to get databases where a lot of groups we have sampled well enough that we could actually use it as a tool for identifying new species. Here's an example for amphibians. This is all the described species we know about on the planet. You can see they're still in a phase of rapid discovery.
This curve is even more impressive because it shows the number of species in GenBank. These two curves are rapidly approaching each other, so we're getting DNA samples from most of the species of amphibians now. That's true for a number of different groups. There are plenty of groups where we don't have anything like that kind of sampling.
I'll just show you how this would work, how this little handheld device might work. The screen shows you this initial tree of life. If you didn't even know you had a salamander, it would send you off to the salamander portion of the tree.
To give you an idea, by the way, of how big the tree of life is, this is 3,000 species. If you took every tip on this tree and expanded it into another tree of this size, then that would give you nine million tips. That's about how many species are on the planet. So this is about the square root of the number of species to give you an idea how big the whole tree of life is that we need to explore.
This takes us to where we now might flip out a chip and put in a chip that was salamander specific. Then it would tell us, well, we have a Plethodontidae, a lungless salamander. So it would take us to the lungless salamanders and say, OK, well, it's some kind of Eurycea. Then it would take us to all the Eurycea we know about and place it within this context.
So you would see, OK, there's the Barton Springs salamander there, and this new sample we have is clearly something else. That something else was a new species that we named the Austin blind salamander. It turns out it lives deep in the aquifer. It doesn't come up the surface very often so we hadn't been seeing them. But it's actually two species in the same aquifer system-- one deep underground and one at the surface.
I like this example because I think it really illustrates how poorly our planet is known. If a place as well studied as Barton Springs, intensively studied, can have new species of salamanders living there that are endemic to that system, then just imagine all the species that exist in lesser known parts of the planet.
Well, we continue to work and discover new species in different regions. Just very quickly, the most divergent ones were all undescribed. These ones, the three at the top, the three new species we described from north of the Colorado River, north of Austin, those are interesting because that's a very conservative suburbs of Austin. So we've basically repeated this whole story all over again now with another set of endangered species.
In fact, even the newspapers like "Different Salamander, Same Goal." Here's some little quotes from it. "Austin environmental group asked officials to list this endangered species potentially creating new development controversies along the Travis-Williamson County line. So Williamson County is the county that is the very conservative area in the suburbs to the north of Austin.
It's the same thing all over again, right? The Williamson County officials oppose federal protection of salamander. Why? Well, because it was going to restrict development. What did you need to do to protect the salamander? Needed to protect the water supply. What do they need for development? The water supply. Somehow there's this disconnect that people keep missing on.
But Austin and Travis County, they learned their lesson. They actually had progress. Travis County as well as the city of Austin, the city staff made recommendations, and their City Council or the county government supported this and supported the protection of these additional endangered species. They knew that it had been good for the city of Austin. So they continued to support these new listings. But lots of opposition to the north and in Williamson County.
This is just a map of this whole region showing all the different species. This is out western portions. The endangered ones are all over here where the humans all exist. Austin is here. This is the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin blind salamander. These are these new ones that are now controversial in these northern suburbs. Some of these down to the south through San Antonio are also very controversial. Fortunately, nobody lives out here, so these are largely not endangered.
But we have lots of new species to discover. I put this up as one example. This is a salamander we have one specimen from, collected one time back the 1950s. The gravel company drilled a hole, some water came out, salamander came out, they collected it. Nobody's ever found it again, but it lives deep underground. So what do you do about that?
So what we're doing about that now is actually we're going drilling for salamanders. This has got to be the most uniquely Texas kind of project you can imagine. But what do you do?
If you drill a hole in the ground, how likely are you to actually get a salamander out of it? We're developing methods now to amplify the DNA out of the water that we take out of these wells and actually look to see if there are salamanders there without ever even seeing the salamander. Then when we find salamanders, then we'll have more concentrated efforts to try to trap them from these wells to learn more about this very endangered ecosystem.
I'm often asked, well, so salamanders they did great helping us protect, but have they done enough really to save the human population? Have the salamanders done enough to save the humans? I think the important thing to think about here is that it's really not humans vs. Salamander.
Salamanders have done a lot, but basically saving salamanders is really pretty much the same thing as saving the humans in this case. We need exactly the same thing. The salamanders need lots of water. They need abundant water and clean water just like the humans do.
I think it can really be a win-win situation. Many endangered species situations actually boil down to that same kind of equation.
I'd say I really like this quote, and I think it captures the sentiment of my talk very well.
"It all boils down to this-- that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly." Anyone know who said that? Who said? What was that?
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Yogi Berra.
DAVID HILLIS: Yogi Berra. Not Yogi Berra. I can guarantee you that's not a Yogi Berr-ism. It was actually Martin Luther King. I don't think that he really said it with the idea of the tree of life in mind, but that's what comes to my mind when I think about this-- the interrelationships across all of life and the fact that we're all caught in this inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. So I really love that quote.
This tree of life that I talked about, of course, does connect all of life across this amazing planet we live on. And understanding the planet and understanding the connections on the planet will really involve a lot of concentrated efforts by scientists, by the public, and by politicians all working towards common goals.
I think this is a case where a story shows where it actually worked out in the end, where all those things came together. A lot of hard work by a lot of people, but I think that it is actually possible. So with that, I'll just acknowledge a number of people who've been involved in this over the years-- a lot of my former graduate students and postdocs and collaborators and biologists at the city of Austin, people from Texas Parks and Wildlife, various funding groups, of course Yogi Berra for his lifetime of wonderful contributions to the American idiom, and those moral communist salamanders of the Edwards Plateau. Thank you very much. I'd be happy to answer some questions.
DAVID HILLIS: Anyone have a question?
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: I got this. I got it. Anybody want questions?
DAVID HILLIS: Yep. There's one here.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: You tell the story with a smile on your face as if you were very happy the whole time. Is that really the way you felt when you were actually doing this?
DAVID HILLIS: Well, that's a great question. It's easy to be happy in retrospect because I'm happy with the outcome, of how it all turned out. At the time, when I came up for tenure, there were friends of the university contacting my college dean about my tenure case that were not enthusiastic about somebody working on salamanders being tenured. Little did they know that that's probably actually helped my case more than hurt it. People in academia don't usually like those kind of outside influences. I think politicians often think they have a lot more influence than they really do.
But it was stressful. Through Freedom of Information Act and those days in the early '90s-- the early days of where academics were using e-mail but it wasn't widely used by other people-- I had requests to get all of my emails, just like people are doing nowadays with politicians running for office. I had to give all my emails over to these developers so they could pick through and look and see if I had made some offhand comment or some negative comment about some politician or some development or whatever. So it was very stressful at the time.
But I worked through it. And fortunately, there were a lot of other people who were on the side of, I think, actually doing the right thing, both in government and certainly in the public. And the public at large, getting those people behind it, I think, really helped turn things around. In the end, I think it all worked out very well. Now, I can sell it with a smile on my face. I might not have done it with a smile on my face if I had been giving the same talk 20 years ago.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: With the Endangered Species Act, most of the things or many of the things on your tree are actually too small to see. Has anyone ever considered microbial endangered species?
DAVID HILLIS: Microbial, yeah. I think it would be politically just about impossible to list a microbe as endangered unless there were some really unusual circumstance.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Is there any real evidence that any of them are, I guess, is really what I'm asking.
DAVID HILLIS: You wouldn't have any argument from biologists. A lot of biologists would agree with you. But trying to get the political and public support for that would be the problem. Now, what people really do is use the Endangered Species Act-- they try to pick out keystone species.
At Barton Springs there's actually, as I said, a whole community of endemic species that occur there. They're all pretty much equally endangered. But we didn't try to list the endangered snail or there's an endangered amphipod and an endangered isopod. Getting public support for those things would've been really hard. Listing the endangered salamander was hard enough, but it was easy enough for people to relate to a salamander.
If you protect a salamander, of course, to protect it you have to do things that will protect that whole community of organisms. So that's really the way I think the Endangered Species Act works most effectively right now. It's not really protecting individual species, but protecting species that by protecting them, you protect whole communities and ecosystems.
But you're absolutely right. If we really wanted to protect all of the endangered species individually on the planet, it would be a much, much tougher chore.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Do you think it worked better because they lived in water, say rather than a mountaintop red squirrel or something like that.
DAVID HILLIS: Yeah. There's certainly aspects of this particular story that worked out really well because of the fact that they were using a resource that was really important to humans as well was an important part of it. It may not be it's always that simple of a story, but that definitely made it easier. Yes.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: I'm just wondering, given the small population sizes, will these things ever not be endangered?
DAVID HILLIS: Yeah. Will it ever not be endangered? You can certainly make it less imperiled with extinction. The reason we have a captive breeding colony is not actually to supplement the wild population. It's actually to guard against some environmental catastrophe that temporarily wiped out all the salamanders. So like if the flow rate dropped down and all the wild ones died and then it came back up and we restored the community, we would have a population from which to restore the salamanders. That certainly makes it less endangered.
But it does have aspects about it that would make it really hard to ever not be endangered given that it's a salamander that lives right in the middle of a large metropolitan area. That's certainly a problem it faces. But nonetheless, we've managed to protect it so far for a quarter of a century. If you'd asked me in 1990, by the way, if I thought it would survive to the end of the millennium, to 2000, I would have said no. And here we are 16 years later, and it's still there. And that's because really all these efforts by the city and other groups to really work in its protection.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: So here in Ithaca, we've got another place where there are a lot of endemic salamander species. Have you been working with scientists who study salamanders here and looking into similar protections in the area, or is it less necessary?
DAVID HILLIS: Here in New York you mean? I haven't done any conservation work locally. I think sometimes people work very effectively at a distance. But my strategy has always been to sort of work locally on issues where I can really invest the time and effort and be part of the public and just because there are so many public and political considerations. It usually helps if you have local people working on the problem. Yeah, I haven't done any work on New York salamanders, especially in the conservation of them. Is that what you asked? Yep? OK.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Dave, let me ask a question for all the young people who are thinking about how you distribute your time in an academic position. What percentage of your time actually went into this activism for the salamander? It seems like it could have eaten up all of your time.
DAVID HILLIS: Yeah, it's been highly variable through different parts of my career. There were times when I had to do a lot of concentrated work on it. Today the only thing I really do is I'm a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the city and advise them on the work that they're doing with the salamanders.
But they now have four full-time salamander biologists working on the problem. So I don't have to devote my time so much anymore. I'm happy devote my time giving them some advice about things they should do. Fortunately, there's a lot of other people. But there were periods of my life where it was very concentrated. It took a lot of effort to spend time on that issue.
Other times in my life I've spent time on trying to convince Texas to teach science in science classes. There's always something that's coming up. I do divide my time broadly between research, teaching, and service, and to me each of those is each rewarding in its own way. So I get a reward out of the research. I really like teaching. And I also really enjoy the service aspect of being able to do things that I feel like are helping the society more broadly at large. So those are all important to me.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: What's your view on some of the effort to wipe out certain species like some of the mosquitoes that transmit diseases?
DAVID HILLIS: Oh yeah, that's a really interesting question where we have things where we're so convinced that a species is bad that we want to eliminate it from the planet. I am always kind of a little bit nervous about that because obviously mosquitoes might be associated with disease transmission but they're likely to be really important players ecologically. We're really, I think, often on very dangerous ground when we start monkeying with eliminating species quote "for our own good." I think that's a very dangerous thing to do that you have to be pretty careful about.
I'm not saying it's always a bad thing. If I could eliminate the HIV virus today, I would do it. Clearly there is so much human suffering and societal suffering as a result of that, that you can point to reasons why you'd want to eliminate certain organisms. But I think we have to be pretty careful in thinking about a broader scale about manipulating nature and wiping out species.
Certainly, eliminating all mosquitoes-- well, I don't like to be bitten by mosquitoes either, but they probably play enormous ecological roles that we haven't really evaluated yet. So I think it does have its dangers associated with it. All right.
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Barton Springs is a resource unique to Austin, Texas, drawing thousands of visitors every year. Yet, Barton Springs is home to endangered species of salamanders rarely seen by the public. In the early 1990s, evolutionary biologist David Hillis discovered the Barton Springs salamander. On Oct. 13, 2016, Hillis shared how the Barton Springs salamander was identified as an endangered species and its impact in Austin's economic development. He is one of Cornell's A.D. White Professors-at-Large.