Biology Class Locates Rare Plant in Big Thicket


Photo: Megan Woolbright, Rowlett, TX; Adriene Sanchez, San Angelo, TX; Courtney Biggs, San Antonio, TX. Second row from front: Nicole Little, Weatherford, TX; Rebecca Loney, Columbus, GA. Third row from front: Katy Tucker, Mesquite, TX; Sunil Guharajan, Malaysia; Back row: Blake Sieck, Pampa, TX, Ross Hutchinson, Lavon, TX; Dr. Rick Hammer

It’s one of the rarest plants in the world, and students participating in HSU’s May Term class called Field Ecology of the Big Thicket went in search of it, and found it.

The federally listed endangered plant called Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivallis subs. Texensis) occurs in only three counties in southeast Texas and nowhere else in the world, says Dr. Rick Hammer, assistant professor of biology. “This plant was once more widespread in the forests of Texas and Louisiana but is imperiled today due to habitat destruction and natural fire suppression,” says Hammer.

The Phlox treasure hunt was one of the highlights of the six-day class study trip to the Big Thicket National Preserve, located just north of Beaumont, Texas. The purpose of the upper-level biology class was to experience and explore in person some of the 10 distinct ecosystems and plant communities of the Big Thicket, which has some of the richest biodiversity in North America. 

The class travelled to Saratoga, Texas, about 35 miles north of Beaumont, and stayed at the Big Thicket Field Research Station operated by the National Park Service. The field station has dorms, a large classroom, lab facilities, and kitchen facilities for cooking meals. 

The preserve consists of nine land units and six water corridors encompassing more than 105,684 acres. Big Thicket was the first preserve in the National Park System established by President Gerald Ford, and protects an area of rich biological diversity.

Natural processes have influenced the region over the millennium. The last Ice Age brought a character change on the natural systems with the cold environment encouraging species to move from separate ecological systems into a close neighborhood, says Hammer. Today, species from the Gulf Coastal Plains, Eastern Forests, and Central Plains share space with species indicative of swamps and bayous. Bald Cypress swamps are a short distance from upland pine savannahs and sand hills.

“Students hiked with a National Parks Service ranger from the Big Thicket National Preserve to gather data on soil type, soil pH, soil water infiltration rate, and forest canopy cover for several forest plant communities, including a magnolia-beech-pine slope forest, a baygall, a cypress slough, and a floodplain habitat,” says Hammer. Students also attended a special presentation about black bear restoration and conservation in the Big Thicket.

Students also worked on several projects at the Roy Larsen Sandylands Preserve, owned and operated by the Texas Nature Conservancy. Activities included a field survey for quail and a fire ecology talk by preserve manager, Bob Boensch. Students participated in a forest tree plot survey to record data on several species of trees including loblolly pine, long leaf pine, and white oak.

Dale Kruse, a plant biologist from Texas A&M University, who conducts research in the Big Thicket, taught a moss workshop at the field station for the students. On Friday, June 1, 2012, students returned to the Sandylands Preserve to hike the Floodplain Trail along Village Creek. Hammer says, “We found a spot where we could hike down to a sandbar on the creek for a freshwater mussel survey. Native freshwater mussels are in decline due to stream and habitat degradation. The class found seven species of mussels.” 

Before departing for Abilene, students canoed a 2.5 mile stretch of Village Creek, described as “one of the finest paddle trips in Texas.”

Hammer says, “When you visit the Big Thicket, don’t look for grand vistas here. You have to look closely, all around you, where you will find a unique assemblage of species, including many that are endangered or threatened.”

Hammer and HSU the Biology Department are very appreciative of the opportunity to use the research station facilities provided and operated by the Big Thicket Association and the National Park Service.
Other photos: Students looking for Phlox; Students place a flag pin beside each of the rare plants; Students study cypress trees; Dale Kruse talks with students; Hiking the Flood Plain Trail; Canoeing Village Creek
Below, you can read the news release from the Big Thicket Association, sent to Southeast Texas newspapers about the HSU students’ class trip:


P.O. Box 198

Saratoga, TX 77585-0198;

(936)274-1181; FAX (936)274-5854


June 1, 2012


Re: Abilene Students Study in the Big Thicket


Abilene students from Hardin-Simmons University were attracted to the Big Thicket woods the last week of May. Dr. Rick Hammer, Department of Biology, organized the activities for his Big Thicket Ecology Class. The Field Research Station operated by the Big Thicket Association in Saratoga housed the nine young adults and provided a home base to return to after the days adventures.


Students spent two days with Bob Boensch of The Nature Conservancy and an afternoon with Dale Kruse, Curator of the S.M. Tracy Herbarium, Texas A & M College of Agriculture and Life Science. Mr. Boensch led a hike along the floodplain trail of the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Preserve to look for ash trees, gather data for quail preservation and perform a freshwater mussel survey. Professor Kruse, an expert on Bryophytes, took the class into the Lance Rosier Unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve to share his knowledge of Bryophyte diversity and identification.


Matt Grundy, an environmental science major at Lamar University, and the Big Thicket Association’s summer intern accompanied the group.





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