Dr. Stebbins’s scientific discoveries and willingness to stand up for his convictions have been celebrated by many, including best-selling author Richard Dawkins. And in political circles, Dr. Stebbins was known for being a persistent advocate for establishing ecological reserves in desert lands to ward off damage done by off-road vehicles.
His biggest contribution to the field was probably his popular “A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians,” first published in 1966 and illustrated with his own drawings and paintings. It was a major force in changing the public’s view toward the creatures he so admired.
“Before that book, if people went out to look for snakes, it was so they could gather them up to sell to pet shops or just show off to their buddies,” said Sam Sweet, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “What Bob did was help make a transition to a similar situation as bird-watching, where it became okay to just look at the animals and leave them alone.”
Dr. Stebbins, 98, died Sept. 23 at his home in Eugene, Ore., of undisclosed causes. The death was confirmed by the University of California at Berkeley, where Dr. Stebbins taught and did research for more than three decades.
Robert Cyril Stebbins was born March 31, 1915, in Chico, Calif., near a ranch and orchard that his family worked. On a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada foothills when he was 5, he had the first encounter he could remember with a reptile.
“Along a creek, I came upon a pond turtle,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “I can still feel the sharp little claws in my hands and see its eye looking up at me, perhaps in fear. I was enthralled.”
He completed his undergraduate degree and doctorate in zoology at the University of California at Los Angeles. While going to college, he also spent time working as a park ranger, and during World War II, UCLA obtained a waiver from combat duty so he could teach Navy medical personnel how to prevent parasitic diseases.
He landed at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1945 as its first curator of herpetology — the study of reptiles and amphibians — and was involved in numerous studies.
In 1949, he initiated a study of a pair of Ensatina salamanders that looked very different and apparently didn’t interbreed. But the “elegantly worked out” study, as Dawkins described it in his 2004 book “The Ancestor’s Tale,” showed that the salamanders had common ancestors but developed different traits because they were long separated by a geographic barrier.
Dr. Stebbins spent much time toiling alone on the drawings and paintings used in his field guides. Generally working from live, anesthetized animals, he measured every part to work out proportions.
Dr. Stebbins’s books were published as part of the Peterson Field Guides series. “Before them,” Sweet said, “there had not been anything you could hold in your hands, with good illustrations and distribution maps. They were in bookstores, and kids could get them for Christmas.
“They showed you could go out and do this yourself.”
Dr. Stebbins retired from the university in 1978 but continued to work on books. The “Field Guide” is now in its third edition, and his “Connecting With Nature,” published in 2012 by the National Science Teachers Association, is a guide to getting students more interested in the natural world.
One of his main causes was to preserve sections of desert lands in California from use by motorized vehicles. His efforts were met with strong objections from off-road vehicle enthusiasts, but in 1994 the federal California Desert Protection Act was passed, designating numerous wilderness areas in the state.
Survivors include his wife of 72 years, Anna-rose Cooper Stebbins; three children; a sister; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
One of the most recent accolades he received came last month with the naming of a species of lizard, Anniella stebbinsi, in his honor.
— Los Angeles Times