Berkeley reptile and amphibian expert Robert Stebbins dies at 98

Robert C. Stebbins, the preeminent expert on western North American reptiles and amphibians who was best known for writing and illustrating A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, died at his home in Eugene, Ore., on Monday, Sept. 23. He was 98.

Robert Stebbins

Robert C. Stebbins in his Kensington, Calif., studio in 2004. Photo by Charles Brown/Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives.

Stebbins, emeritus professor of zoology at UC Berkeley, and curator emeritus in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, was passionate about nature – from the snakes, reptiles, frogs and salamanders he studied as a herpetologist to the diverse and endangered habitats these creatures called home.

“He had a unique feel for organisms, a kind of empathy for nature that permeated everything he did and inspired many people,” said herpetologist David Wake, professor emeritus of integrative biology and former director of the museum.

Beginning in the 1970s, Stebbins argued forcefully against allowing off-road vehicles to run roughshod over desert lands in California and the West, and played a big role in lobbying California Sens. Alan Cranston and Diane Feinstein to set aside the Mojave Desert as a preserve. The Mojave National Preserve was eventually established in 1994 with limitations on off-road vehicles. He also spearheaded efforts to turn UC Berkeley open space in Strawberry Canyon into an ecological reserve to protect natural habitat near campus.

“Besides his academic success, Stebbins fostered much interest in conservation and environmental issues through many undergraduate and graduate students,” wrote former student R. Bruce Bury, an emeritus scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, in an email. “Almost typical of him, he seemed to prefer they be out on the front lines and take the credit. His advice and council was a guiding light.”

Connecting with nature

In his later years, Stebbins’ passion manifested itself in educational outreach to school children, in whom he hoped to spark an interest in nature. He made two educational films about conservation and nature with the Sierra Club and wrote several science books for elementary school students. His most recent book, Connecting with Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective (Llumina Press, 2009), was a mix of personal stories, hands-on activities for children, and arguments for studying ecology as a pathway to connecting with nature.

He wrote seven field guides in all, beginning in his 20s, when he coauthored bird guides of Lassen and Yosemite national parks with his father, Cyril. He put his artistic talents to use illustrating his first widely known field guide, Amphibians of Western North America (1951). The book was unique in being more than a listing of species, but a compendium of information for the amateur naturalist and infused with a love of nature, Wake said. Stebbins’ Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California (UC Press, 1972) was released in a revised edition in 2012 with coauthor Samuel McGinnis. His A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (1966) in the Peterson Field Guide Series is still in print nearly 50 after its first edition.

Robert Cyril Stebbins was born March 31, 1915, in Chico, Calif., not far from his family’s 15-acre ranch and orchard. The oldest of seven children, Stebbins moved with his family in 1922 to San Francisco, where his father made agricultural films and worked as a UC Berkeley instructor in plant breeding and genetics. The family subsequently moved to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, where Stebbins attended North Hollywood High School. He studied at UCLA, graduating with an undergraduate degree in zoology in 1940 and a Ph.D. in zoology in 1943.

Stebbins with a portrait of a sea turtle.

Stebbins in 1995 with one of his oil portraits, a tortoise. Photo by Peg Skorpinski.

Berkeley years

He was hired by UC Berkeley in 1945 as the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s first curator of herpetology and as an assistant professor of zoology. In addition to identifying and collating specimens for the museum, he began research on the ecology and evolution of the Ensatina salamander and its many subspecies that ring California’s Central Valley. He later did research on the function of reptiles’ pineal gland, or so called third eye, but increasingly focused on illustrating and describing reptiles and amphibians from around the West. Stebbins was a painstaking scientific illustrator, Wake said, often studying his live specimens for days before beginning to paint a watercolor portrait. Upon retirement in 1978, Stebbins took professional painting lessons and produced many beautiful oil portraits of animals and landscapes.

A much-admired teacher, Stebbins always had time to speak with students, and loved leading natural history walks not only for undergraduates in his classes, but for elementary school students, Boy Scouts, friends and family.

One former student, Stevan Arnold, professor of zoology at Oregon State University, Corvallis, recalled the time that Stebbins asked all students in his class to climb onto their chairs, then brought in a rattlesnake to observe how it moved across the floor.

“He was the person who got me interested in the field of herpetology; I wouldn’t be in this field if it weren’t for him,” said Ted Papenfuss, one of Stebbins’ last graduate students who now is a research specialist emeritus in herpetology in the museum. Papenfuss was 11 years old when he first met Stebbins, who taught him and Stebbins’ son John how to snare lizards and identify the calls of frogs.

A fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, Stebbins was awarded in 1978 the Berkeley Citation, the highest honor given to UC Berkeley faculty.

Stebbins is survived by his wife of 72 years, Anna-rose Stebbins (nee Cooper); sister Rosalie Darling of Yreka, Calif.; son John of Eugene; daughters Melinda Broadhurst of Adelaide, Australia, and Mary Stebbins of Vernon British Columbia, Canada; six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Stebbins’ life will be held in Eugene on Sunday, Sept. 29. A UC Berkeley memorial is planned for later this year.