Alligator research, fungi studies mark Thicket of Diversity's 2017 accomplishments

Dallas Zoo Volunteer Group led by Ben Jones | Photo: Thicket of Diversity

The Big Thicket of Southeast Texas is a region historically rich in biological diversity. Efforts have been underway since 2006 by the Big Thicket Association’s Thicket of Diversity (ToD) to survey and monitor species through biological inventories, the organization said in a recent statement, adding that 2017 was an active and productive year for the project.

The Big Thicket National Preserve protects 113,000 acres in seven counties: Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, Liberty, Orange, Tyler and Polk. These public lands are ideal for research and are the main sites targeted. The ToD is unique because partners include not only the preserve but other government and non-government agencies, educational institutions, non-profits and industry. Information collected is of benefit to land managers and can be used as a tool to measure variations in species and ecosystems as a result of climate changes.

Research leaders came from government and educational institutions from across the state and nation to guide teams and students. They made their home base the Big Thicket National Preserve Field Research Station in Saratoga.

Beth Middleton of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted field work on leaf litter and seed samples. Evelyn Anemaet also of the USGS studied bald cypress. Brian Gold of Texas State University performed mist netting of birds to study ticks, and Bradford Westrich of Texas State University studied mammalian communities and host richness and parasites. Mackenzie Tietjen of Texas A & M researched ticks. Edward Realzola of Sam Houston State University continued his whirligig beetle research, and Matt Ley of Colorado State University followed up on vegetation mapping. Scott Clark of the University of Houston collected soil for research on Dictyostelium discoideum in Texas.

Two local researchers were recipients of new Thicket of Diversity funding. Alison Tarter of Texas State University began a freshwater mussel project. Matt Pyne of Lamar University initiated alligator research in the preserve. In addition, Daniel Bennett of Stephen F. Austin started a bee survey in the Big Thicket National Preserve.

Thicket of Diversity, in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS), facilitated many educational opportunities and research projects this year. The dormitory facilities available in the Field Research Station (FRS) made it possible for groups from around the country to learn and serve.

While utilizing the FRS, Lauren Dennhardt of Valley State University conducted research on plant and fish specimens for an undergraduate diversity study, Scott Solomon of Rice University led an annual student bioblitz, and Carl Knight of Eastfield College explored 2018 opportunities for Dallas students to volunteer in the preserve.

Volunteers from the Dallas Zoo utilized the FRS as a base-camp while working with the NPS to help plant longleaf pines. Students from St. Michael's College in Vermont returned this year for their annual alternative winter break experience volunteering with the NPS for 6 full days, and biology students from Sam Houston State College removed litter.

In addition, David Lewis of the Gulf States Mycological Society facilitated two mushroom forays for members and the public. He also served as a field guide for 130 Kountze High School students for guided walks on the Kirby Nature Trail and a tour on board the IvoryBill floating classroom. Lewis, Beth Middleton an Edward Realzola were Thicket of Diversity invited guest speakers on the Kountze High School campus.

Kountze Intermediate School sponsored a Science Fair with approximately 270 projects submitted. The Big Thicket National Preserve and the Thicket of Diversity presented exhibits and shared information on research, programs and service opportunities and assisted with judging. 93 Kountze Intermediate School fourth graders visited the preserve as part of a Brown grant and the Every Kid in a Park program. They participated in hands on environmental learning activities under the Sundew Trail pavilion.

Representatives of different environmental organizations volunteered to support the field trips. They included Mona Halvorsen, ToD Director; David Lewis, President Gulf States Mycological Society; Ellen Buchanan, President of Sierra Club and Big Thicket Natural Heritage Trust; Willie Watkins and Rachel Iglesias, Big Thicket Association Directors; and James Taborsky, Gerald and Sarah Langham, Nancy Angell, of the Sabine Chapter of Master Naturalists.

2017 funding for the Thicket of Diversity was facilitated by The Brown Foundation, the National Park Foundation, Kountze ISD and individual contributions. The ToD also received penalty monies from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) enforcement actions. The Big Thicket National Preserve supported ToD in many ways. Staff offered leadership and program support.

ToD office space with utilities including internet services were provided at the Field Research Station. Hidden in the small town of Saratoga, the Field Research Station provided affordable lodging for visiting researchers and meeting space in the classroom. The Nature Conservancy’s fire team, BTNP employees, the Big Thicket Association, and the Texas Black Bear Alliance conducted meetings and provided training workshops at the facility.

Thicket of Diversity accomplishments and research must be shared and accessible and its discoveries, such as New Species to Preserve, State and Science, recognized. For maximum benefit, research priorities for 2018 with strong management implications have been identified by the Big Thicket National Preserve. This will guide research proposal submissions and new project selections. The vision of the Thicket of Diversity is to expand and sustain its inventory work so that it is dynamic, perpetual, up-to-date and fully funded.

The Big Thicket Association appreciates past sponsors and volunteers and depends on partner to help ensure this quality work continues into the future. For more information, visit

- Thicket of Diversity