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 either 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. During
his 50+ years of service to the University of Texas, he taught dozens of courses in ecology, including a class on the human overpopulation crisis. He taught hundreds of graduate students and many thousand undergraduates.
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). ERP taught his signature course "Evolutionary
Ecology" based on this textbook for four decades from 1973 to 2013, at which time it was sabotaged by administrators who denied him a teaching assistant. Thereafter, he taught a large freshman non-majors class "Ecology, Evolution, and Society."
Shortly after joining the Zoology faculty at UT Austin, Pianka met and immediately bonded with fellow saurophile and desert rat, Raymond B Huey. Thus began a life-long collaboration.and friendship. In 1969-70 Huey spent most of a year in the Kalahari desert
as Pianka's research assistant. They coedited a book and coauthored many papers over the next half century on various topics including character displacement, thermoregulation, spatial and temporal patterns of activity, stomach contents, and modes of foraging,
among others. They returned to the Kalahari in 1975 under the auspices of the National Geographic Society.
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 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. "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, which he
held until 2018. In 1990, Pianka submitted his collected papers to the University of Western Australia and was awarded the Doctor of Science degree.
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 one of his two daughters and the mother of his two 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
Pianka relinquished his life-long Coooley Professorship in 2018 and retired in 2020. He is now the
Denton Cooley Professor Emeritus>.
for a Day,
Eric Pianka can be reached at
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