E.R. Pianka's Obituary
Dead for a Day
Eric R. Pianka was a son, a brother, a student, an uncle, a lover, a
teacher, a husband, a father, and, during in his old age, a doting
grandfather. Pianka survived several near death experiences,
including a bazooka shell blast, being gored by a bison, and nearly
drowning in the Rio Grande. He crossed the Pacific on the surface
twice and visited dozens of countries on all the continents, as well as
many major islands. He cared deeply about the
human dilemma and the rape of Earth.
Watch the Ontogeny of Eric Pianka (2.4 megs).
Pianka was born in the mountains in the shadow of Mount Shasta in
Siskiyou County along the California-Oregon border in 1939. He
discovered lizards and snakes at age 6, when he became entranced
with these splendid creatures. At age 13, he was seriously injured in
blast in the front yard of his childhood home in Yreka, California.
His left leg became gangrenous, and he lost 10 cm of his tibia, as
well as the terminal digit of the middle finger on his right hand.
Pianka's childhood injury left him with a short and partially
paralyzed leg, which seldom slowed him down very much. In later
life, his short leg resulted in spinal scoliosis and cervical spondylosis
(an S-shaped spine and a pinched brachial nerve between neck
During his first year in high school, Pianka was bedridden and had a
home teacher who taught him English and typing. As a plump gimp
in high school, he joined the American Society of Ichthyologists and
Herpetologists as a life member. He always maintained that one of
the most important courses he took in high school was auto shop (he
completely rebuilt his first car, a 1948 DeSoto, for this class). Upon
graduation from high school, he and his brother (then ages 17 and
15) travelled 9,200 miles from northern California to 200 miles
south of Mexico City, returning via Texas, Louisiana, and 8 other states.
They collected snakes and butterflies along the way and had
numerous adventures and mishaps. At a roadside "snake house,"
Pianka was thrilled to find an unattended, unlocked cage containing
two cobras -- his late brother Mike thought Eric was mildly crazy when he
opened the cage and prodded the snakes with his cane to make them hood!
Pianka attended a small liberal arts school, Carleton College, in
Northfield, Minnesota, where he spent the four coldest winters of his
life and was awarded his BA with a major in biology in 1960. He was
only a "C" student as a freshman, but steadily improved, earning
straight "A's" as a senior. During the summer between his sophomore
and junior years, with college buddies, he went on another more
extensive trip through Mexico all the way into northern Guatemala,
collecting reptiles and butterflies. In 1959 as an undergraduate, he
published his first scientific paper, a short note
coauthored with Hobart M. Smith on his Mexican collection of reptiles.
His lifetime goal at that time was to write the definitive book on Lizards
and Snakes of Mexico, something which still has not been accomplished
by anyone and may never be!
Pianka was dismayed to find himself denied admission to the best
graduate schools (Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California
at Berkeley), so he made last-minute applications to three "second
rate" northwestern universities during the summer of 1960. He was
admitted, but without financial aid, to all three and chose to attend
the University of Washington in Seattle because it was farthest from
home. (At that time, Washington had not yet acquired its present
reputation, which was partially attributable to the production of
Pianka and his peers.) His arrival there coincided with those of
Gordon Orians, Mary Willson, and Christopher Smith. Other graduate
students in the Department included Jared Verner, Charles King, John
Emlen, and Henry Horn. R. T. Paine was hired later.
Pianka's major professor in graduate school at Washington, the late Richard
C. Snyder, was a functional anatomist. Studying lizard ecology and
diversity, Pianka spent the springs and summers of 1962-1964 doing
fieldwork at a series of desert study sites, ranging from southern
Idaho through southern Arizona. His late brother Nick and several
others served as field assistants.
In 1965, Pianka finished his Ph. D. and began a three year N. I. H.
postdoctoral with the late
Robert H. MacArthur at Princeton University. Soon thereafter, he
married, and with his wife Helen, spent 18 months doing fieldwork
in the Great Victoria desert of Western Australia from mid-1966
through early 1968. In Australia, they discovered the world's richest
known lizard faunas, as well as half a dozen previously undescribed
species of lizards, two of which were named after them
and Ctenotus piankai).
a tapeworm parasite of the Australian agamid Moloch horridus,
and a nematode parasite
of Australian knob tailed geckos Nephrurus have also been named in Pianka's honor.
In the summer of 1968, Pianka accepted an Assistant
Professorship at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has
stayed ever since. Pianka was Managing Editor of the American
Naturalist from 1971-1974, and he was on editorial boards of the
American Naturalist, BioScience, National Geographic Research,
Research and Exploration, as well as the Encyclopedia of
Environmental Biology. Pianka gave hundreds of
at most of the world's major academic institutions. He gave the plenary
lecture on the state of the art of community ecology at the First
World Congress of Herpetology in Canterbury in 1989, and, at the 18th International
Congress of Zoology in Athens in 2000, he presented the opening address entitled
"A General Review of
Trends in Zoology during the 20th Century."
During his 50 year academic career, Pianka published nearly 200
scientific papers, several of which became "Citation Classics."
His intercontinental comparisons of desert lizard ecology became a
standard textbook example. His textbook
"Evolutionary Ecology," first
published in 1974, went through six editions and has been translated
into Greek, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Spanish. It is available as an eBook
With Ray Huey and Tom Schoener, he co-edited a symposium volume in 1983 entitled
"Lizard Ecology: Studies of a Model Organism" (Harvard University
Press). In 1986, he published a synthesis of his life's research, an
important book entitled "Ecology and Natural History of Desert Lizards. Analyses of the Ecological Niche and Community Structure" (Princeton University Press).
Pianka was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1978-1979 and a Fulbright
Senior Research Scholar during 1990-1991 (both these were spent
doing fieldwork in Australia). His department awarded him the
Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professorship in Zoology for life in 1986.
In 1990, Pianka submitted his collected papers to the University of
Western Australia for which he was awarded the Doctor of Science degree. In
1994, with Laurie Vitt, he co-edited another symposium volume on
"Lizard Ecology: Historical and Experimental Perspectives" (Princeton
University Press). Also, in 1994, he published an autobiographical
account of his adventures in Australia "The Lizard Man Speaks"
(University of Texas Press).
In 2003, with coauthor Laurie Vitt, the most important book
ever written about lizards "Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity" was published
by the University of California Press, Berkeley. This book on lizards
Best Non-Fiction Book Award at the Oklahoma Center for the
Book in 2004 and the
Grand Prize at the Ninth Annual UT Coop
Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards in 2005 (Read selected pages).
With the late Dennis R. King, Pianka coedited the ultimate reference
volume on monitor lizards "Varanoid Lizards of the World," a collection of essays by over 30 international experts
published in 2004 by Indiana University Press
(peruse selected pages).
Pianka was chosen as
the Herpetologists League's "Distinguished Herpetologist" in 2004. In
the same year, at the joint Ichthyologist/Herpetologist's annual
meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, Pianka was honored in a session
organized by Gad Perry and Laurie Vitt entitled "Ecology and Evolution of Reptiles: A Tribute to Eric
Pianka." Many of his students and colleagues gave papers at this
session. At the same meeting, the American Society of Ichthyologists
and Herpetologists passed "Resolution of
Piankafication" which was published in their journal Copeia 2004: 989-990.
In 2006, The Texas Academy of Science named him "Distinguished Scientist." He
received a standing ovation for his acceptance speech on the
Vanishing Book of Life on Earth, which was
unfortunately misinterpreted by an
advocate in the
audience (to read about this vilification, slander, and resulting
controversy, click here).
Pianka and his graduate student Stephen Goodyear spent September-December of 2008
continuing field work at two study sites in the Great Victoria Desert of Western
Australia. People were surprised to find an old ecologist avidly pursuing field
work at age 70. They participated in making a wildlife documentary video on monitor
lizards, "(Lizard Kings," which
premiered nationally in the USA on PBS NOVA on the 20th of October 2009. Another version of
this video, which showcased some of Pianka's research, also premiered down under on the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC on 18 July 2010. It received several awards for best
Pianka supervised 20 graduate students, most of whom hold tenured
positions at major universities, including Ray Huey, Richard Howard,
Jos. J. Schall, Nancy Burley, Anthony
Joern, Mary Wissink George, Duncan MacKay, Christopher Schneider, Kirk
Winemiller, Mitchell Leslie, Dan Haydon, Ray Radtkey, Gad Perry, Monica Swartz,
Nancy Heger, "Ramki" Ramakrishnan, Bryan Jennings,
Wendy Hodges, Carla
Stephen Goodyear, and
Pianka's hobbies included chess and falconry. He was a jack-of-all
trades but a master of none: he did his own auto repairs, wiring,
plumbing, building, fencing and weeding. He learned carpentry from
his father and he loved to build, although he did not like finish work
very much. He built an addition on to one house, a store (now a house),
two barns, and the house he lived in on Flat Creek. He was predeceased
by his mother, father, sister, and two brothers. His survivors include
his two daughters, three grandchildren, an ex-wife (mother of his children),
an ex-non-wife, and a herd of American bison.
Pianka spent nearly 10 years of his life living in the desert, often
alone, and he liked to think of himself as a hermit and a desert rat.
He spent seven years down under and at times, he was at one with
the bushfly. He spent the last half of his life living in the Texas hill
country in a "shack on Flat Creek," where he became known as
He tried his best to live an ecologically responsible life. He commuted in a Prius
and had a rainwater catchment system, two water wells with solar-powered DC
pumps, an evacuated tube solar water heating system, a 2400 watt wind turbine,
as well as a dozen solar panels on his roof. During some months, these generated more
power than he consumed.
Click here to watch Quicktime movie of Bison running (80 megs).
Herd Bull Lucifer in 2003 Lucifer in 1994
Lucifer stands a full 6 feet tall at the shoulder and
weighs about 2700 pounds (he got his name because
jumps a 4 foot fence!)
Geneva and Old Cow with newborn calves.
Eric Pianka can be reached at eric.pianka@heaven/hell.com
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