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Turtles Back Home in Upgraded Ponds

Photo: Marsha Miller The School of Biological Sciences turtle ponds, jewels of the popular Tower Garden between the Main Building and Biological Laboratories, underwent much-needed repairs this spring. With the turtles relocated to temporary quarters at UT’s Pickle Research Center, contractors and volunteers removed years of silt accumulation and repaired cracks in the ponds’ concrete liner. Volunteers replanted the pond with new aquatic vegetation and brought the turtles home in time for Commencement. There are even new logs and rocks for the turtles to sun themselves on.

The ponds were built over the period 1934 – 1939, about a decade after Bio Labs were completed and during the construction of the Tower. While obviously appropriate for the Botany and Zoology Departments (both of which occupied Bio Labs at that time), apparently neither department claimed the ponds as its own, and maintenance was sporadic.

Guy Thompson (Professor Emeritus, Botany and MCDB) describes himself as an “unofficial guardian” of the ponds for many years, gaining the position “by default” after the death of Botany Professor Richard Starr. Since Thompson joined the University in 1967, the ponds have received only one serious cleaning, in 1991. The water recirculation system was not installed until 1996. Before then the ponds were filled with city water that flowed out of the ponds into a storm sewer – “The water bill was found to be $2,000 per month,” Thompson says. The present recirculation system is augmented by rainwater collected from the roof of the nearby greenhouse.

During his guardianship, Thompson tried valiantly to relocate turtles when their numbers became too great and threatened survival of the pond’s plant life. His task was made more difficult, he says, by the unfortunate tendency of some students to dump their aquaria into the pond when they left for the summer!

Snappy the snapping turtle. Photo: Marsha Miller One of the more colorful inhabitants of the ponds was Snappy, the largest of several snapping turtles. “You probably have heard about the large snapping turtles that used to lie just below the surface of the ponds and grab pigeons when they came to drink,” Thompson says. “Many people have observed pigeons suddenly disappearing below the surface with a frantic flapping of wings.”

The pond renovations even became a focus of Paul Gottlieb’s Director’s address to graduating Biology students during last May’s Convocation. “The degree of emotional connectedness to the turtle ponds that I have encountered among students and all campus inhabitants and visitors has been astounding,” Gottlieb said. “E.O. Wilson … muses in his recent book, The Future of Life, that the love that Homo sapiens has for natural settings may reflect something called the ‘savannah hypothesis:’ Quoting Wilson: “… Homo sapiens is likely to be genetically specialized for the ancestral environment so that today, even in the most sequestered stone-and-glass cities, we still prefer it. Part of human nature is a residue of bias in mental development that causes us to gravitate back to savannahs or their surrogates.” Whether or not this preference for natural environments may be genetically built into Homo sapiens as Wilson suggests, we do resonate to natural settings … the Texas Hill Country, our national parks, rivers and lakes and oceans, the mountains – and on a reduced scale, our very own local turtle ponds.”

Renovation of the turtle ponds comes just ahead of additional landscaping that will emphasize the Tower Garden’s dedication to the victims of the Charles Whitman shootings of 1963.  Landscape architect Eleanor H. McKinney and visual artist Jill Bedgood are designing a memorial that will be dedicated on August 1, 2003.



Bio Sci students