Robert C. Stebbins, Chronicler of Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Dies at 98
By PAUL VITELLO
Robert C. Stebbins, who was considered by many to be the pre-eminent authority on the lungless salamander, the barking tree frog, the northern Pacific rattlesnake and hundreds of other amphibians and reptiles of the North American West, died on Sept. 23 in Eugene, Ore. He was 98.
His death was announced by the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor emeritus of zoology.
Professor Stebbins, a biologist who published his first book in 1951 and his last in 2012, was equally renowned as an illustrator, conservationist and advocate for the study of biology the old-fashioned way — by going outside and observing it. He was described by colleagues as a modern scientist with the heart of a 19th-century naturalist.
His best-known book, “A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians,” first published in 1966 and still considered the bible of the field, was illustrated with painstakingly detailed drawings he made during long treks in mountain and desert habitats at a time when most biologists were moving their research into the laboratory.
He had no quarrel with laboratory research. “The importance of studies at the level of molecules and cells is unquestioned,” he wrote in the preface to “A Natural History of Amphibians,” a 1997 book. “But it is equally important to study life at the other end of the spectrum of biological organization — whole organisms and their interactions in nature.”
The sudden decline of amphibian and reptile populations worldwide, beginning in the 1980s and ’90s, made it especially urgent “to obtain direct, on-site knowledge of what is going on,” he said.
Professor Stebbins’s 1966 field guide — written in longhand and typed by his wife, Annarose — filled a large gap in zoological research, said Joseph Mendelson, curator of herpetology at the Atlanta Zoo and a past president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. There had been field guides for amphibians and reptiles of the United States, he said, but none that gave more than cursory treatment to the hundreds of species specific to the North American West, defined as encompassing 11 states plus the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Today a dog-eared, water-stained “Stebbins,” as it came to be called, is an indispensable tool in a herpetologist’s field pack, Mr. Mendelson said. “There is no herpetologist anywhere, at any level — amateur or scientist,” he said, “who does not refer to that field guide on a daily basis.”
Professor Stebbins became an active environmentalist in the 1970s after he noticed dune buggies and other off-road vehicles bouncing through the desert, destroying the surface crust that protects amphibians and reptiles and the vegetation they live on.
With support from the Sierra Club, he and a group of colleagues took on the recreational vehicle industry in a decade-long campaign to restrict the vehicles’ access to desert land. In California, their effort helped to establish limited protections in the East Mojave National Scenic Area and to elevate the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments to fully protected national park status.
Professor Stebbins said he became convinced that the greatest threat facing the environment was human estrangement from nature. He proposed expanding science education beyond biology, chemistry, physics and the behavioral sciences to include the formal study of “natural history,” which he defined as the interaction of all of the above in the struggle of life on earth.
“To paraphrase George Gaylord Simpson,” he wrote in 1997, referring to the American paleontologist, “knowing all there is to know about a lion’s molecules and cells will not tell you why a lion roars.”
Robert Cyril Stebbins was born on March 31, 1915, in the Northern California town of Chico, where his parents, Cyril and Louise, farmed fruit and nuts and raised horses and sheep. His mother was an artist in her spare time. His father taught agricultural and nature studies at the Chico State Normal School for Teachers.
Professor Stebbins received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D degrees in biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He centered his doctoral thesis — and much of his early work — on the Ensatina salamander, a genus found in the Western coastal mountains. He found its many species and subspecies useful in documenting speciation, the process by which one species evolves into another.
In 1945 he was named an assistant professor of zoology, and the first curator of herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, where he remained throughout his career.
Professor Stebbins is survived by his wife; a son, John; two daughters, Melinda Broadhurst and Mary Stebbins; a sister, Rosalie Darling; 6 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
“Anyone can begin the steps toward a more nature-centered worldview,” he wrote in one of his last books,“Connecting With Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective” (2009), which was equal parts memoir, guidebook and practical guide to helping children of the touch-screen era see the “insects in the leaves” and the “mushrooms in the lawn.” First, of course, he said, they should be encouraged to go outside.
Robert C. Stebbins, Chronicler of Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Dies at 98 - NYTimes.com