In a childhood memory, David Hillis recalls the time when the woodlands of Lwiro in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo were unexpectedly pleasant. The region, where the moisture in the air intermingles with the sweat on one’s skin moments after stepping outside, is infamously steamy and tropical.
On that day Hillis walked among delicate flowers with vibrant greens surrounding him on his way to school. He stumbled across a thick spider web — big enough to catch a bird, which he later discovered was what the spider intended to do. Hillis says he was fascinated by sights like these. He began carrying a camera and would momentarily lose track of time as he took snapshots of the curious nature around him. Hillis is now the director of the UT Biodiversity Center, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and the holder of Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professorship in Natural Sciences.
Hillis’ father was a viral epidemiologist. His work took his family to many countries in Africa and throughout parts of India. Hillis spent much of his childhood exposed to wide ranges of biodiversity.
“Well, while in Africa and India, the main way I entertained myself was to go outside and catch things all over the world,” he says. “And so I always felt excited about animals and nature.”
After moving back to the United States, his family lived in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Maryland. Eventually, Hillis attended Baylor University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology, and later the University of Kansas, where he earned his master’s of science, master’s of philosophy and doctorate in biological science, specializing in molecular evolution and systematics.
On April 11, Hillis’ book “Armadillos to Ziziphus: A Naturalist in the Texas Hill Country” was published, capturing his youthful curiosity and love of nature, years of study, and appreciation for the Hill Country.
In the mid-1990s, Hillis and his wife bought a ranch, now coined Double Helix, in Mason County. On his land, he ensures the plant life he cultivates is conducive for native animals, whether it’s the average deer or declining fireflies. Lotebush, a spiny clumplike shrub, is a common plant removed by home and ranch owners, but to Hillis it is very important because it provides shelter for ground-dwelling quail.
“I’ve always loved the land, and I wanted to work it, restore it and protect it,” he says. “It’s just a very attractive place that seems like home to me.”
Hillis wrote the book hoping to get readers to understand the true beauty of the Texas Hill Country, which not only contains clear, spring-fed creeks and colorful pockets of wildflowers but is also a biodiversity hot spot, with many species found only there.
“I try to convince landowners that actually keeping a few of these (plants) around in your pastures is a really good idea and helps your wildlife,” Hillis says. “It also, I hope, helps people appreciate some underappreciated Texas plants.”
Down the road from the Double Helix is Rancho Cascabel — Rattlesnake Ranch — owned by longtime friend Harry W. Greene. Hillis and Greene met when Hillis was applying for graduate school and Greene was a new faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley.
Though Hillis did not attend Cal, the two stayed in touch throughout the years. Once or twice a year Greene would come down to Hillis’ ranch, and they would herd his longhorns and hunt deer. After Greene’s wife got a job at UT, he decided to buy his own ranch, and today the two nature lovers live a hop, skip and a jump from each other.
Hillis is a steward of 700 acres. Up to 48 head of cattle graze the diverse grasses on his ranch. When Greene officially bought his ranch, Hillis’ gifted him with a housewarming longhorn.