In Memorium: Robert C. Stebbins (March 31, 1915 – September 23, 2013)

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

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 Perspectiveand 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.]

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

(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.

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  1. #1 by sandersdrdirt@comcast.net on September 24, 2013 - 7:07 am

    Matt,

    Bob’s most important book in my estimation is, “Connecting with Nature”. If there is such a thing as “human sustainability”, Dr. Bob’s recommendations may be the pathway.

    He always gave me sound advice.

    Dale Sanders, alias Dr. Dirt

  2. #2 by Alan Kaplan on September 24, 2013 - 9:37 am

    Hi, Matt!

    This news, though not unexpected, is sad.

    Dr. Stebbins was very important as a resource for his neighbors, the naturalists at the Tilden Nature Area (Berkeley, CA). He was very generous with his time, training us, encouraging us, defending us and the natural resources of the park.

    Everyday, naturalists throughout the West use his books to educate themselves and the public about the natural world.

    He leaves an amazing legacy!

    Alan Kaplan

  3. #3 by David Perlman on September 24, 2013 - 10:02 am

    What a remarkable scientist and humanist! Bob was a man who made memories for lay people, and mine remains in my mind lettered on the back of an old field jacket I wore in the Galapagos after Bob wrote on the back in large antique script the name of the newspaper that had sent me to write about the expedition. Artistic, funny, kind,indefatigable, generous he was inspiring. The photograph of senior herpetologist Stebbins, armed with a foot-long thermometer, taking the rectal temperature of a scaly black marine iguana with his eyes glancing down to observe a red-throated tropidurus lizard on a rock beneath his feet remains in this reporter’s memory as the symbol of a dedicated scientist in the field.

  4. #4 by Matthew Bettelheim on September 24, 2013 - 1:13 pm

    [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.]

  5. #5 by Darren Newman on September 24, 2013 - 2:29 pm

    I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Dr. Stebbins once at a San Joaquin Herpetological Society meeting in Fresno back in the early 1990’s. As a 24 yr old student majoring in Environmental Biology at CSUF, you can imagine how in awe I was of meeting the preeminent herpetologist of the entire world. He was akin to a rockstar in my eyes and at first I was too nervous to even approach him. After some time I made my way over and introduced myself. His bright, sparkling eyes, gentle humor and wit, immediately put me at ease and before I knew it we were carrying on about the peculiar mating habits of Ensatinas, field marks of various lizards, vocalizations of various amphibians, and why exactly one *should* hand-capture a Masticophis at some point in their career (it’s to see how many times one can get bitten if I recall correctly).

    He helped to build this young mans already kindled interest in “all things slimy and scaly” into the roaring fire that continues to this day.

    Thanks to you Bob, for all you have done to increase our knowledge and awareness of these oft-maligned and little understood taxa, you will be greatly missed…

    Darren Newman
    North Fork, CA

  6. #6 by John R. Stebbins on September 24, 2013 - 3:27 pm

    Growing up in North Carolina, I was passionate about reptiles & amphibians and I was also a budding wildlife artist. I became aware of Dr. Stebbins’ Western Field Guide (for obvious reasons) and sometime in my high school years I wrote to him for career advice, as I was determined to become a herpetologist. To my great pleasure, my hero wrote me back a wonderful letter with sage advice and encouragement which I took to heart. Later, in 1985, I had just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and after a subsequent stint in the NC Wildlife Commission, I decided to see the country. I wrote Dr. Stebbins again and asked if I could call on him when I was in Berkeley and not only did he remember me, he was very receptive to meeting with me.

    I met Dr. Stebbins at his office and we visited for what seemed to me like quite some time. Again, he was encouraging and offered much the same advice to me that he did years previously. The remainder of my trip, I was contemplating our conversation.

    I am 50 years old now and I did take his advice. I have often thought back to how fortunate I was that this man was so willing to communicate with me about my passion- our shared passion. It profoundly changed my career trajectory and for that I am so grateful.

    My only regret is that I did not stay in touch over the years, so he could see how he changed a boy’s life (career-wise) for the better through simple conversations. Ironically, I just recently tried to get in touch…

    My thoughts go out to his family, colleagues and friends.

    John Robert Stebbins
    Seattle, WA

  7. #7 by Chris Clarke (@canislatrans) on September 24, 2013 - 9:06 pm

    Never met Bob, but spoke to him any number of times on the phone. He was unfailingly helpful and generous, granted permission to reproduce his artwork at the drop of a hat, and helped instill in me an abiding love for the desert. I am both pleased that he won’t see then next few dangerous years in his beloved desert, as environmental groups seem to want to sacrifice it for their own ends, and saddened that we no longer have his voice to speak out against that destruction.

  8. #8 by Fred Rinne on September 24, 2013 - 10:50 pm

    Mr Stebbins, your work will live on in us all and the land we try to save.

  9. #9 by Craig Hassapakis on September 25, 2013 - 11:10 am

    Dr. Robert Stebbins (as I knew him) will be sorely missed as he was such a great inspiration to so many and for his unfailing pursuit for the conservation of nature and wildlife. I had the rare opportunity to meet this great man on 4 or 5 occasions and several for hours (I apologize for the longest visit I certainly over stayed my welcome by mistake and with my over enthusiasm) and will keep them with me forever. Thank your Dr. Stebbins may you rest in peace and with greater adventures ahead!

    Craig Hassapakis, Editor and Publisher
    Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

  10. #10 by Stephanie Pappas on September 26, 2013 - 9:52 am

    In my heart I know Dr. Stebbins lived a full life filled with great adventure and admiration for the wilderness and herp’s of the world. However, with tears in my eyes I say good-bye to a great mentor and brilliant man whom I had such respect for. His knowledge of reptiles and amphibians was boundless and his willingness to share information was admirable. His advice and encouragement was always so refreshing. Dr. Stebbins was a great author,biologist, artist and so much more. He leaves this world as a legend and will be remembered forever.

    My deepest regards to his family and friends,

    Stephanie Pappas, Biologist/Founder
    Chelonian Science Foundation

  11. #11 by Miriam on September 26, 2013 - 2:06 pm

    He is my grandfather and he taught me to love nature and to look after it. We would go on long walks and he would tell me stories and explain things about the animals and plants we saw along the way. I think I know more about the plants and animals in the US than I know about the ones in Australia. Although he taught me about those too. He knew everything.
    I will miss you Gramps.

  12. #12 by David Peterson on September 27, 2013 - 6:27 am

    Nearly 40 years ago, as a snake crazy youngster of 15, I wrote him a letter asking for advice on how to become a herpetologist. To my surprise he responded with an invitation to visit him at Berkeley. My father drove me over and I spent over an hour discussing herpetology with him. I had two more opportunities to see him again over the years (one was a week long UC Extension class on the Northern Mojave Desert) and was always struck by his friendly demeanor and willingness to spend time talking to anyone with an interest in herpetology no matter what else he had going on. I never became a herpetologist ( I became a Biology teacher instead), but still have a love for those organisms and their protection. Meeting him enhanced my love of wild life and the ripples of our encounters still affect me to this day. Thank you Dr. Stebbins, you will be missed!

    David Peterson
    Livermore, CA

  13. #13 by Ray Novotny on September 29, 2013 - 7:57 pm

    Here in northeast Ohio, I discovered Roger Conant’s Peterson field guide to eastern/central herps in our library at age 11-12. I asked for it for my 13th birthday. My mother ordered it at our local department store. Dr. Stebbins’ western guide arrived instead. While I marveled at the artwork, I was not yet a bibliophile, so we asked the store to send it back and reorder.

    During college, I took my first trip west to National Audubon Society’s Ecology Camp in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. Afterward, I bicycled from Yellowstone National Park to Missoula, Montana and stopped to examine a fresh road-killed prairie rattlesnake (and the first and last porcupine I’d ever seen). To save weight, I didn’t carry the Stebbins bible I eventually obtained, but I referred to it upon my return.

    Subsequent sojourns in the decades since to Oregon, Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming & Montana again, Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico, were unfortunately always too brief and never too herp-oriented, but I religiously took his field guide along and looked at the range maps to learn what was in the area. (I did spy a live black-tailed rattlesnake in the Chiricahuas)

    I started my unique hobby of nominating deserving individual for awards in 1985 and expanded it significantly in 2000. The Southwestern Association for Naturalists’ choice of the “Peterson Field Guide Brothers” Roger (Conant) & Bob (Stebbins) for its W. Frank Blair Eminent Naturalist Award in 2003 really thrilled me. Unfortunately, neither could attend the ceremony at the University of Oklahoma meeting that April, and sadly, Dr. Conant passed away that December. Dr. Stebbins later told me in a letter how much he liked SWAN’s roadrunner logo on the plaque: his father had taught him birds, so he had a deep interest of long-standing in feathered creatures, and had in fact considered roadrunners for his graduate research.

    I’m a Life Member of the National Association for Interpretation. NAI is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) professional association for those involved in the interpretation of natural and cultural heritage resources in settings such as parks, zoos, museums, nature centers, aquaria, botanical gardens, and historical sites.

    NAI met in Albuquerque in 2006. Meeting sites are announced years in advance. Dr. Conant had moved there upon retirement from the Philadelphia Zoo in 1973, and I had hoped he would still be around. As I previously mentioned, it was not to be. Thanks to the suggestion of then Executive Director Tim Merriman and courtesy of then President Evie Kirkwood, NAI honored Dr. Conant posthumously with the prestigious President’s Award. I also nominated Dr. Stebbins for NAI’s Senior/Retired Interpreter Award. Because he was a non-traditional “outside-the-box” candidate, it took Linda Yemota, his student at UC-Berkeley, and career employee of East Bay Regional Park District, to convince the committee to chose him. Thus, the “Peterson Field Guide Brothers” honored again! I accepted on behalf of Conant and Alan Kaplan, also of East Bay, ably accepted for Stebbins.

    Because of these awards, Dr. Stebbins and I had a fair amount of correspondence. For better or worse, I’m now a bibliophile. I mailed him a big box of books for him to sign and he sent me other signed books and prints out of generosity. My only real chance to meet him was in November 2003, when NAI gathered in Reno. But as it turned out, crossing the snowy Sierras to reach his home in Walnut Creek intimidated me too much.

    Linda Yemota recently told me that Dr. Stebbins was her favorite professor. Last month I obtained a copy of his revised _Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California_, co-authored with Sam McGinnis. I may never get to herp in The Golden State, but as a reader of their book, as suggested within, I feel that I’m among their “newest groups of students.” This November, NAI again meets right next door in Reno. The 500+ wonderful pages will help me pass the time on the long journey to our conference.

    In his just short of a century, Robert Cyril Stebbins left the world a much better place than he found it. How fortunate I was to know him, albeit from afar.

    Inspired by the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, established primarily to safeguard a loggerhead sea turtle nesting beach, in 2000 I led a campaign to convince the State of Ohio to name a property after Roger Conant. The very “well-awarded” Dr. Conant had confided that such a naming would be the most significant honor he could imagine. Unfortunately, just like Carr’s, it didn’t happen until two years after his death. Dr. Stebbins’ colleague, Dale “Dr. Dirt” Sanders, has taken the lead on a similar naming effort. I hope in the not too distant future, both of the Peterson Field Guide Brothers will be able to join Dr. Carr in looking down from Herpetological Heaven with big smiles on their faces!

    Ray Novotny
    Youngstown, Ohio

  14. #14 by Holly Smith on September 29, 2013 - 10:13 pm

    Doctor Stebbins is my friend Mary’s father and I was fortunate to have met him several times over the years and share a few adventures with him at Cathedral Mountain Park in BC and also down in New Mexico. He was 75 when Mary and I took our children camping and hiking up in the mountains with her parents. Our kids were probably age 6-8 and full of beans, wanting to forage into the unknown up a rock slide and for about two seconds i wondered if this would be too much for her dad. What did I know! He lead the way, 75 years young, as agile as a mountain goat, and was waiting patiently on top as we finally struggled over the last boulders, totally exhausted. I think the man was made of steel!
    I remember him playing Christmas carols on his violin with Mary and always joining in with whatever games we would be playing. He was a born teacher, kind, curious, patient, and so willing to explain when we didn’t have a clue about kind of frog or snake we had found. We were blessed to have known him and I know he will be greatly missed.Fondly remembered Holly and Jack Smith

  15. #15 by Tim Manolis on September 30, 2013 - 11:23 pm

    I never met Bob, though I feel like I knew him. A mutual friend, Tom Rodgers, would keep me up-to-date on what he was doing, until Tom passed on. And of course I knew Bob through his books and his art.

    His work provided the template for directing my interest in ecology and art into a lifetime of discovering the world around us and sharing it with others. To further spread his vision is the inspiration I carry and the challenge I face.

    Oh, and I was bitten once by the Masticophis I caught, long ago. . .

    Tim Manolis

  16. #16 by barry dandreano on October 6, 2013 - 3:00 am

    thanks so much for all your work and for helping me Prof Stebbins…

  17. #17 by Jeffrey Caldwell on November 29, 2016 - 3:45 pm

    As a youth I had a hardback copy of his Amphibians and Reptiles of Western North America, which I loved and read excessively. For some years I thought I wanted to be a herpetologist. I am deeply grateful for his work.

  1. In Memorium: Robert C. Stebbins | (bio)accumulation

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