It is with a grave heart that I report today the passing of esteemed herpetologist Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Cyril Stebbins (March 31, 1915 – September 23, 2013) at the age of 98. Best known for his contributions to the field of herpetology, including the venerable Peterson Field Guide Series’ Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians in its 3rd edition, in his lifetime Dr. Stebbins was also a husband, father, grandfather, naturalist, ranger, biologist, researcher, teacher, professor, curator, author, artist, and environmental advocate. With eight field guides under his belt, Stebbins’ books have become the authoritative guides to the amphibian and reptile fauna of western North America, California, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
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.” In recent years, Stebbins added to his expansive oeuvre the 2009 Connecting With Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective, and his recent return to the University of California Press’ California Natural History Guides, a 2012 revised Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California with herpetologist Dr. Samuel M. McGinnis.
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). This week, a third species was named in honor of Dr. Stebbins, the newly described southern California legless lizard (Anniella stebbinsi).
In his recent retirement, Dr. Stebbins 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, he remained 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 was.
[Correction: in an earlier version of this post, Dr. Stebbins date-of-death was incorrectly reported; Dr. Robert C. Stebbins passed away on the morning of September 23, 2013.]
(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).
In the Spring of 2012, the Stebbins family granted me permission to reprint extracts from his memoir, a work-in-progress he offered freely to the herpetological community. For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.