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Life on the Outside: David Hillis

Life on the Outside: David Hillis
David Hillis. Photo by Matt Lankes.If you’re looking for Professor David Hillis on most weekends, point your compass West-Northwest and drive out of Austin for about one and a half hours through some of the most beautiful land in Texas.

When you get to the community of Fly Gap, look for a ranch with a name that only an evolutionary biologist would choose: the Double Helix. There you’ll find Hillis, atop a horse knee-deep in little bluestem and native wildflowers, working his herd of Texas Longhorn cattle.

Hillis hasn’t been ranching for long—he started from scratch in the mid-90s—but admits that he’s “pretty much a rancher now.” The first thing he does when he gets to the Double Helix Ranch each weekend is saddle up his horse and ride out to find the herd. He rounds-up his 30 Longhorns, gives ‘em some food and performs any kind of veterinary work that might be needed, like vaccinations or branding.

“I do what needs to be done,” says Hillis in a gentle but cut-to-the-chase manner that befits a rancher. “I’m certainly not a rancher in the sense that I make a full time living, but I deal with all the different aspects of ranching. I suffer through the droughts and rejoice with the rains with the other ranchers.”

Hillis comes from a long line of Texans, and he started ranching because he’s always wanted to own and manage land in this state.

“I’m also very interested in Texas natural history, biodiversity and history,” he says. “I wanted to do something that was connected to the history of Texas. Being at UT as well, Texas Longhorn cattle seemed like the obvious connection.”

Hillis isn’t trying for the next Bevo, though he admits that it would be fun for one of his Longhorns to get the title someday. Instead, he’s interested in preserving and understanding Longhorn cattle genetics.

When not working his Longhorns, Hillis lets his inner biologist out to play on the ranch. He and his biologist buds have been creating a complete biological inventory of the ranch. “There are very few sites on the planet where this kind of inventory exists,” says Hillis. “It helps in learning about the biodiversity of the ranch and also helps in managing the ranch.”

The Double Helix Ranch is actually three separate properties, and Hillis co-owns one of them with Jim Bull, professor of integrative biology, and Robert Baker, a geneticist at Texas Tech University. His smaller parcel down near Johnson City happens to be next door to integrative biologist Eric Pianka’s bison ranch.
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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

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