Stebbins, A Life and Times


Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 6

A Young Scientist’s Discovery 

The Panamint Mountains border the western side of Death Valley, California. Such high mountain areas provide refuge for many species of plants and animals intolerant of surrounding arid con ditions. Among its many canyons on its western slope, Surprise Canyon was noted for its pleasent and often accessable condition and, at the time of this story, was visited by desert residents escaping the heat of the lowlands. This deep canyon supported a spring and cool stream, with willow clumps and grape vine tangles. However, the terrain was rough, subject to rock slides, and washouts, and the road was unpaved and often unreliable.

On November 23, 1954 members of the James McDonald family from China Lake, a desert locality, were in the canyon and James McDonald, jr., age nine, with a strong interest in nature, was on the hunt for creatures. He came upon a large lizard, one he had not seen before, and wrote the following details in his notebook: “The lizard was about twenty feet from the stream and was lying in the open. There was algae and water cress in the water and willows and sage­ brush along the creek. The floor of the canyon was of boulders and gravel… the air temperature had been about 75° F. It was a bright day. We found the lizard about 4:30 PM when the temperature had dropped quickly to about 60° F. due to a coming storm. The lizard was slow and easily caught.”

Fortunately the animal, a magnificent specimen reached the hands of Mr. Darwin Tieman who, recognizing its probable scientific value, sent it (alive) to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, U.C. Berkeley, where I, as a curator, obtained it and soon decided it might qualify as a new species. However, I knew much work lay ahead to determine its place among its many known relatives.

In the meantime, through other trips to the Canyon, several other individuals, including young ones were obtained, the latter with surprisingly different coloration from the adults. They were bold-striped yet blended effectively with their natural surroundings.

Often when specimens corne to a natural history museum they are soon preserved and added to the museum’s scientific collection. I was in no hurry to so treat this intriguing animal. What secrets might it reveal if kept alive?

For over a year it lived in a specially created cage in our home where we (the writer, wife and 3 children) provided for its needs. We also learned from it and its kind through frequent trips to Surprise Canyon, and study of its many relatives, some also studied in the field, and often at distant locations. Along the way we established a friendship with the McDonald family and I got to know other scientists that had been studying members of the new-comer’s families.

Some things we learned about our captive were: (1) It regularly slept with its long tail aligned on top of, or along side of, its body. Several other members of its family did likewise. Did this behavior help defend against lethal attack through sacrifice of an organ (the tail) that could be regenerated? (2) It displayed tree and bush climbing ability. (3) Both young and adults blended re­markably with their surroundings of twigs, rock colors, crevices, etc. despite their apparent contrasting differences. (4) The species was extremely illusive. Much effort was required to find enough specimens to warrant its classification. (5) Finally, the discovery triggered (on my part) a study of the relationships of the many members of alligator lizard groups as shown in Fig. 3, the Barisa and Gerrhonotus. The former is known to be ovoviparous (eggs retained in the body until hatching) and the other oviparous (eggs laid).

Note the location of the Panamint Alligator Lizard (Black Triangle) among the egg-layers. I don’t recall if we had certain evidence at the time that it was among this group. Its placement there may have been based on other factors. Finally, a note to James McDonald, jr.: You were a model (at an early age) of the value of careful observation of nature. I’m sure your parents taught you well and I remember them and our trips together with great fondness.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.


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