Robert C. Stebbins: A Man Outstanding in His Field Guide

Editor’s Note: It is with great pleasure – mixed with a considerable amount of serendipity – that I introduce a new, serial column celebrating the adventures of the western United States’ preeminent herpetologist, Dr. Robert C. Stebbins. As a fixture in the herpetological community, Dr. Stebbins is perhaps best-known for his contribution to the Peterson Field Guide Series as author and illustrator of A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians – a guide first published in 1966, now in its 3rd edition. When western herpetology was in its infancy, Dr. Stebbins helped nurture it into a respected field of science through his pursuit of education, outreach, and advocacy in the name of reptiles and amphibians. In doing so, Dr. Stebbins has helped popularize the field of herpetology, making it accessible to the everyman and sowing the seeds for future naturalists.

Following this introductory post recounting Dr. Stebbins’ accomplishments and accolades, the Stebbins family has given me permission to reprint here extracts from his memoir, a work-in-progress he has offered freely to the herpetological community. I hope you’ll visit (bio)accumulation often in the coming months to browse the selection of posts canvassing the life and times of Dr. Stebbins, a model naturalist unquestionably outstanding in his field guide.

“The life histories of our reptiles remain almost entirely unknown. Herpetologists are so few, and reptiles so retiring, that, unless more general interest can be aroused, we may hope for very little light upon this important branch of the science. Many specialists in other departments of science, as well as hunters, farmers, students, and other intelligent men, however, are constantly in the field and might record observations of great interest were means of identification at hand.”

John Van Denburgh (1897)

This sentiment, penned by California Academy of Sciences herpetologist John Van Denburgh in April 1897 for the preface to his The Reptiles of the Pacific Coast and Great Basin: An Account of the Species Known to Inhabit California, and Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada, broke the seal on what was perhaps the west’s first herpetological field guide. It was a “handbook for the more or less casual student” – unabashedly popularized, yes – but done so in the hope that, nevertheless, “professional herpetologists will find something of interest regarding the variation and distribution of our reptiles.” Van Denburgh had unwittingly cornered the western wild’s market for reptile field guides.

In the passing century, more general interest has indeed since been aroused. Today, our knowledge concerning the life histories of western reptiles and amphibians has grown considerably and herpetologists are more plentiful (tho’ reptiles are just as retiring). But for those who seek a means of identification, today’s hunters, farmers, students, and other intelligent men and women have at their disposal an unparalleled resource: Dr. Robert C. Stebbins’ A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd edition) of Peterson Field Guide Series fame (or as we in the trenches call that trusty field guide, Stebbins).

Robert Cyril Stebbins, Kensington Studio, 2004 w/ the Permission of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley

With seven field guides under his belt and an eighth on the way (due to hit shelves next year), the venerable Stebbins [first and foremost the man (= Dr. Stebbins), but also the field guide (= Stebbins)] has become the authoritative guide to the amphibian and reptile fauna of western North America, California, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Here in California, Stebbins is to western herpetologists what the Oxford English Dictionary is to lexicographers – a concise, trustworthy reference for amateurs and professionals alike. What self-respecting western herpetologist hasn’t thumbed through their Stebbins in search of the tadpole key to work through the various tooth rows under a hand-lens, or to make head or tails of the Thamnophis complex (literally!) of garter snakes.

Personally, I own three copies of Stebbins. There’s one in my home office and a second in the cubicle at work, both prim and glossy snug in their places on their shelves between the spines of other such local field guides. The last copy, tucked in its place in my field bag, gets all the love: swollen and disfigured, it’s been christened by rainfall during nocturnal California tiger salamander surveys, unceremoniously dunked during precarious creek crossings, smudged with pond scum and turtle funk, and become all-together well-thumbed and scribbled up. As I recall hearing Dr. Stebbins say at a book-signing in Berkeley in 2003, it is battered veterans of the field like the latter that he enjoys seeing the most.

At the ripe age of 96, Dr. Stebbins is no stranger to being a veteran of the field. Robert (“Bob”) Cyril Stebbins was born on March 31, 1915, in Chico, California, the first of seven children to parents Cyril A. and Louise B. Stebbins (¹). In his early years, Bob was raised on the Stebbins’ family ranch on the outskirts of Chico where they grew prunes, almonds, peaches, and watermelons. Bob’s parents were instrumental in fostering his interest in the natural world. By age five, Bob recalls having already learned the parts of the flower in an almond orchard under the instruction of his father, a high school teacher and naturalist, not to mention an encounter in the Sierra Nevada foothills catching his first herp, a western pond turtle that later escaped (and was later replaced after his mother returned to the creek to catch another!).

Robert Cyril Stebbins, 1952 w/ the Permission of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley

After several moves – to San Francisco when Bob was seven, to Pomona at age nine, and to Sherman Oaks at age eleven – Bob graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1933 and enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles. But his choice in majors – Civil Engineering – soon proved misguided, leading to his withdrawal from the university for more than a year to recuperate after developing health problems. Upon his return to UCLA, it was to major in Biology. After graduating in 1940 with highest honors in Zoology, Bob married his wife, Anna-rose, on June 8th, 1941, and attended graduate school pursuing his Master’s (1942) and Ph.D. (1943) dissertation research on fringe-toed lizards while simultaneously attending the Yosemite Field School of Natural History (1940), serving as a ranger-naturalist at Lassen Volcanic National Park (1941-1942), and earning teaching credentials for elementary, high school, and junior college (1942-1943).

Delving first into ornithology, it wasn’t long before Bob turned his attention instead to his true, cold-blooded calling, herpetology. His graduate research on fringe-toed lizards under professor Raymond B. Cowles centered on the parietal “third” eye, a light-sensitive organ in lizards (and, to varying degrees, other herptiles) lying on top of the head, and its role in controlling their daily activity and reproductive cycles. In the coming years, he went on to describe within the plethodontid salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii) complex one of the best known examples of a phenomenon known as Rassenkreis, or “ring of races.” In Ensatina, Bob observed the complex was comprised of seven morphologically distinct subspecies geographically distributed throughout the mountains surrounding the Central Valley in a ring (or circle). With the species originating in Northern California, radiating southward along either the Sierra Nevada or Coast Ranges to the mountains of Southern California, he noted limited gene exchange (hybridization) along the ring where subspecies overlapped, whereas they behaved as distinct species where the terminal ends of the ring overlapped.

In 1945, the-now-Dr. Stebbins was selected to join the curatorial ranks of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, as the first herpetology curator (“Assistant Curator in Herpetology”) where he served until 1978, joined along the way by David B. Wake in 1969. And upon his retirement in 1978, Dr. Stebbins became Professor Emeritus of Zoology and Curator Emeritus of Herpetology.

Since the publication of his first field guide to amphibians in 1951, the passing years have seen Dr. Stebbins’ oeuvre grow to include the following herpetological field guides, all researched, written, and illustrated by himself:

  • Amphibians of Western North America (UC Press, 1951)
  • Amphibians and Reptiles of Western North America (McGraw-Hill Press, 1954)
  • Reptiles and Amphibians of the San Francisco Bay Region (UC Press, 1960)
  • A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1966)
  • Amphibians and Reptiles of California (UC Press, 1972)
  • A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2nd edition (Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1985)
  • A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 3rd edition (Houghton-Mifflin Co., 2003)
  • Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California, revised edition (w/ Samuel M. McGinnis; UC Press, in press)

When the authoritative Stebbins was first published in 1966, Roger Tory Peterson remarked in the editor’s note that to find a man “who is equally skilled both as a biologist and as a biological illustrator is extremely rare. Such a man is Robert Stebbins.” Beginning with a modest 207 species in 1966, the current Stebbins bears entries and full-color illustrations for 280 species of salamanders, frogs and toads, turtles, lizards, and snakes. Side by side, each volume divulges the field of herpetology’s growing pains toward maturity, from an emphasis on collecting and captivity in the 60s to survey methodology and conservation today.

Still, these guides barely graze the surface of Dr. Stebbins’ published work: peer-reviewed journal articles, films, teaching guides, field guides, and natural history books. Among this expansive library is his 2009 Connecting With Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective, a practical treatise describing ways to foster ecological literacy and nature bonding in a world wrought with touch screens and urban sprawl.

Over the years, Dr. Stebbins has left his mark in the field of herpetology, not only through his published works, but through his accomplishments. In addition to having described four species or sub-species of herps, the Jemez Mountain salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus), the Panamint alligator lizard (Elgaria panamintina), the yellow-eyed ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica), and the southern Torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton variegatus), two salamanders have been named in his honor: the Tehachapi slender salamander (Batrachoseps stebbinsi) and the Sonora tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum stebbinsi).

In his retirement, Dr. Stebbins has turned his attention to his family, to his artwork, and to putting an account of his life and times to paper. His memoir is that of a man who forged a living out of a childhood passion. First and foremost as a naturalist, in practice as a herpetologist, but he remains at heart a child – doing what children (and naturalists) do best: catching frogs, chasing lizards, and exploring the great outdoors. For a child, an afternoon outdoors can last a lifetime. Dr. Stebbins made it his life. And what a full life it continues to be.

(¹) Biographical material summarized from:

Luckenbach, Roger. 1985. Robert Stebbins: A Life of Devotion to Detail. Pacific Discovery 38(2): 34-43.

Mulcahy, Daniel G. and Meredith J. Mahoney. 2006. Historical Perspectives: Robert Cyril Stebbins. Copeia 2006(3): 563-572.

Sahagun, Louis. 2005. Profile Robert Stebbins: Art and Science Illuminate a Naturalist’s Path. Los Angeles Times, 4 April: B2.

* For a complete biography of Dr. Stebbins’ life, please refer to Mulcahy and Mahoney (2006).

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  1. #1 by Kevin Melanephy on January 7, 2012 - 9:10 am

    Very informative introduction to Dr. Stebbins life and work. I look fotward to reading more.
    Thanks.

  2. #2 by Chris Thayer on January 7, 2012 - 9:10 pm

    Nice accolades, and well deserved. Bob is a well-polished gem. I’ll add that your brief biography could not have been more well written.

    Thanks Matt.

  3. #3 by Jeff on January 9, 2012 - 10:33 am

    I really appreciated the work you put into that article. Well written by you, but well deserved kinds words for Dr. Stebbins.

  4. #4 by John Carothers on February 27, 2012 - 6:11 pm

    If I was a tenth as gifted as Dr. Stebbins, I would count myself a lucky person indeed. I was fortunate to have known him when I was in graduate school.

  5. #5 by Sheila Larsen on May 15, 2012 - 10:50 am

    So many of us owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Stebbins for his untiring work in the field of herpetology. And thank you for a lovely article.

  6. #6 by Alan Kaplan on January 9, 2013 - 9:53 pm

    Hi, Matt!

    I have an extra copy of “Robert C. Stebbins: An Appreciation” from Earth Day, 1995 when Dr. Stebbins was awarded the Environmental Spirit Award at a Symposium/Conference at UC, B.

    If you don’t have this, let me know and I’ll bring it to campus (you are on the UC campus?) for you to have.

    Alan K.

  7. #7 by Kelly futhey on September 11, 2013 - 8:08 pm

    As a child In the 70s I only knew “ROBERT C STEBBINS” as an “oracle type being”. I was (and still am) a herptile nut as a child and adolesant and belonged to a small group of similar types called “Leaping Lizards”. We met once a week after school and numerous weekends in Marin County for field trips, always had a week to a month long trip to Navada or Arizona during the summers. It was fantastic! I still have my original way beat up Stebbins guide, it is a direct link to my very best memories.

    • #8 by Matthew Bettelheim on September 11, 2013 - 10:34 pm

      Kelly,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Keep that guide – the memories it holds are no doubt priceless!

      -Matthew

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  6. BOOK: Connecting with Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective |
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