A collection of essays on the ecology, biodiversity, and restoration of the Texas Hill Country.
For most of five decades, evolutionary biologist David Hillis has studied the biodiversity of the Texas Hill Country. Since the 1990s, he has worked to restore the natural beauty and diversity of his Mason County ranch, the Double Helix. In his excursions around his ranch and across the Edwards Plateau, Hillis came to realize how little most people know about the plants and animals around them or their importance to our everyday lives. He began thinking about how natural history is connected to our enjoyment of life, especially in a place as beautiful and beloved as the Hill Country, which, not coincidentally, happens to be one of the most biodiverse parts of Texas.
Featuring short nontechnical essays accompanied by vivid color photos, Armadillos to Ziziphus is a charming and casual introduction to the environment of the region. Whether walking the pasture with his Longhorn cattle, explaining the ecological significance of microscopic organisms in springtime mud puddles, or marveling at the local Ziziphus (aka Lotebush, a spiny shrub), Hillis guides first-time visitors and long-term residents alike in an appreciation for the Hill Country’s natural beauty and diversity.
David M. Hillis is the director of the Biodiversity Center at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2008. He is also known for his discovery of numerous new species, including Austin’s iconic Barton Springs Salamander.
Harry W. Greene is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and the author of Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art, among other books.
Each chapter in this utterly engaging book is a finely crafted chronicle of a unique Hill Country treasure. Taken together, Armadillos to Ziziphus is a master class in the singular geology and ecology of the Hill Country taught by its most renowned naturalist. A delight to read and ponder!
~Juli Berwald, author of Spineless and Life on the Rocks
David Hillis’s Armadillos to Ziziphus is a love letter to a unique home ground shared by humans and many other creatures, revealing an infatuation glimmering with scientific acumen and tales of personal interactions with nature. This book is sure to resonate with admirers of A Sand County Almanac.
~Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Backyard Bird Chronicles
Brimming with insight into the Hill Country's fascinating nooks and crannies, these essays will change the way you see this beloved part of Texas.
~Carter Smith, Executive Director, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Hillis brings encyclopedic scientific knowledge to the task of explaining the Hill Country’s 'natural wealth.' He doesn’t allow scientific jargon or Latin taxonomy to muddy his prose, however. Using plain, understandable language, he paints accessible portraits of the land he’s spent a lifetime walking and exploring...He dissects the region with both practiced ease and great authority, tapping his wisdom as a scientist, as a scholar and as a lover of nature. Reading the book feels much like perusing a personal journal that captures a lifetime of experiences...Armadillos to Ziziphus is one of those books that can be read in one sitting or used as a go-to compendium, whereby the reader looks up something sparked by a curious moment.
~San Antonio Report
[A] charming new primer on the region's environment.
This book is intensely delightful...Hillis writes short, entertaining essays on nature...Hillis writes in a fluid, open, sometimes awed manner, primed for enjoyment by the reasonably curious reader.
One of the most practical and pleasing new Texas books of 2023. . . I will read these incandescent essays . . . again and again.
[Hillis]'s decades of personal and professional experience in the region are evident in the text . . . [Armadillos to Ziziphus] will be of great interest to naturalists and scholars as well as general readers interested in developing their ecological knowledge of this region, and could serve as an informative prerequisite for environmental tours or individual outdoor enthusiasts planning a visit to the area.
[Armadillos to Ziziphus] lovingly catalogs the region’s environmental components, making seemingly familiar features new. More important, Hillis offers practicable pathways toward not only safeguarding the region’s endangered environments but also repairing and rejuvenating them...The succinct essays are packed with information, and Hillis’s writing style balances scientific precision with conversational ease. It is a wonderful addition not only to the environmental writing on Texas but also to environmentalist activism in Texas.
I go back to these elegant, accessible essays again and again. There's just something so appealing about an accomplished scientist such as David M. Hillis, who can speak and write in way that's open to just about everybody, including the neighbors of his ranch in Mason County. Chief of the Biodiversity Center at the University of Texas, he explains the interplay of the elements in transparent prose in Armadillos to Ziziphus: A Naturalist in the Texas Hill Country (University of Texas Press). If I owned a Hill Country cabin, this book would be waiting to delight and inform every guest.
~Michael Barnes, Austin-American Statesman
Foreword by Harry W. Greene
I. The Texas Hill Country: A Naturalist’s Paradise
1. Geological Setting of the Edwards Plateau
2. From Acid Sands to Alkaline Clays
3. Hill Country Weather: Droughts, Floods, and Severe Storms
4. Some Texas Icons Haven’t Been Here All That Long
5. Hill Country Endemics
6. What Is the Value of Biodiversity?
II. The Seasonal Life of a Vernal Pool
7. Tilting at Tiny Windmills
8. Crustacean Wonders
9. The Fascinating Flora of Vernal Pools
10. Those Who Live in Glass Houses
11. A Season of Symphonies
12. What Happened to All Our Frogs?
III. Flowing Waters: Aquifers, Caves, Springs, and Rivers
13. Life without Light
14. Lanterns of Summer
15. Musings about Mussels
16. The Last Wild River
IV. Life of a Grassland
17. Why Do Some Grasses Grow in the Winter, but Others in the Summer?
18. Butterflies, Hummingbirds, and Other Pollinators
19. The Noble Life of a Dung-Roller
20. Where Have All the Quail Gone?
21. Grasshoppers, Locusts, and Plagues
22. The History of Texas Cattle Written in Their DNA
V. In the Woodlands and Brushlands
23. Containing and Preventing Oak Wilt
24. The Challenges of Being an Oak Tree in the Hill Country
25. How Do Trees Sense When It Is Time to Leaf Out and Bloom?
26. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Trees
27. Spring Is Here, and So Are the Snakes
28. Songs of the Summer Dog Days
29. Going Batty
30. Deer Densities on the Edwards Plateau
31. Bucks in Velvet
32. The Future of Hill Country Deer Populations
33. The Carbon Cycle and How It Affects Our Daily Lives
VI. Backyard Biology
34. The Remarkable Life of Hummingbirds
35. Ways to Attract and Increase Bird Populations
36. The Unexpected Beauty and Diversity of Lichens
37. There Is More to Mistletoe than Kissing
38. The Ups and Downs of Ants
39. A Pattern in the Web
40. Caterpillar Plagues and Their Connection to the Weather
41. Predators and Second Chances
VII. Climatic Adaptations
42. Toadally Cool
43. The Surprising Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly
44. How Do Animals Survive the Winter? Part 1: Migrating
45. How Do Animals Survive the Winter? Part 2: Keeping Warm and Active
46. How Do Animals (and Plants) Survive the Winter? Part 3: Waiting Out the Cold
VIII. Restoration and the Future of the Hill Country’s Natural Resources
47. The Restoration and Benefits of Native Grasses
48. The Pros and Cons of Brush Control
49. Recovery of a Texas Icon: The Texas Horned Lizard
50. Avoiding the Dangers of Lead Poisoning in Game Meat
51. Our Climate Future in Central Texas
52. If the Earth Is Warming, Why Did We Just Have a Record Cold Snap?
53. Practical, Painless, and Significant Solutions to Climate Change
54. Six Resolutions for Supporting Native Plants and Animals
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