E.R. Pianka's Obituary
Eric R. 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 a
Bazooka 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. (This gave him the
enviable capacity to issue a graded response to insults, and he enjoyed being able to flick someone e
ither the "full finger" or merely "half a finger." If someone really annoyed him, he would give them
the full one and a half.) 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 vertebrae).
Click here to watch the Ontogeny of Eric Pianka (2.4 megs).
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 Mike (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 --
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 B. A. 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 (Columbia, 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, Richard 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 brother
Nick and several others served as field assistants.
In 1965, Pianka finished his Ph. D. and began a 3 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 saurofaunas, as well as half a dozen previously undescribed
species of lizards, two of which were named after them. A cestode Oochoristica piankai, a tapeworm
parasite of the Australian agamid Moloch horridus, and a nematode parasite (Skrjabinodon piankai
) 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
invited lectures 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, 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 two hundred scientific papers, several of which became "Citation Classics."
His intercontinental comparisons of desert lizard ecology became a standard textbook example.
His text "Evolutionary Ecology," published in 1974, went through seven editions and was translated
into Greek, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Spanish, as well as an eBook (available from Google).
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."
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 2002, 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.
"Varanoid Lizards of the World" edited by E. R. Pianka and D. R. King was published by
Indiana University Press in 2004.
(List of ERP's Books.)
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 in 1986. In 1990, Pianka submitted
his collected papers to the University of Western Australia and was awarded the Doctor of
Pianka supervised 21
graduate students, many of whom held or hold tenured positions
at major universities, including Ray Huey, Richard Howard, Jos. J. Schall, Nancy Burley,
Anthony Joern, Mary George, Duncan MacKay, Christopher Schneider, Kirk Winemiller, Mitchell
Leslie, Daniel Haydon, Ray Radtkey, Gad Perry, Monica Swartz, Nancy Heger, "Ramki" Ramakrishnan,
W. Bryan Jennings, Wendy Hodges, Carla Guthrie, Stephen Goodyear, and Alison Gainsbury.
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 is survived by
his two daughters and the mother of his children.
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 6 full 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 raised American bison and became known as
Eric Pianka can be reached at eric.pianka@heaven/hell.com
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