Tribute to a Modern Artist-Scientist

In 2011, Robert Villa, the young Vice President of the Tucson Herpetological Society joined NG Explorer Mike Fay for miles of walking on his Tucson Transect at BioBlitz 2011 in Saguaro National Park. Here he offers a tribute to one of his inspirations and role models.

By Robert Anthony Villa

Dr. Robert Cyril Stebbins (age 98; 31 March 1915-23 September 2013), a great naturalist, biologist, ecologist, conservationist, herpetologist, and soul, has died and left a legacy that will be nearly impossible for others to live up to.

I first met this dean of southwestern herpetology as a 15-year-old Geekus maximus at a symposium in my home of Tucson, AZ. I knew he would be there for a book signing, and also accompanied him on a field outing. He was nothing but a gentle and noble soul – autographing my copy of “the Stebbins”. His Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (“herps”) is a bible of sorts. It is the only compact, concise and authoritative field reference for the entire western US and Canada.

It also stands as a work of art because apart from being an astute scholar, Dr. Stebbins was also an artist, who beautifully painted all of the species of amphibians and reptiles occurring in the geographic scope of the guide. Being an artist myself (musician), he stands as one of my artist-scientist heroes, teaching me to see each one through the other’s perspective.

Dr. Robert Cyril Stebbins and Robert Anthony Villa. (Photo courtesy Robert Anthony Villa)
Dr. Robert Cyril Stebbins and Robert Anthony Villa. (Photo courtesy Robert Anthony Villa)

Among his accomplishments, Dr. Stebbins described four herps and had three named in his honor (Ambystoma tigrinum stebbinsi, Anniella stebbinsi, and Batrachoseps stebbensi). He explored the function of the pineal (“third”) eye in reptiles, discovered the ring species phenomenon in California Ensatina salamanders, and was an eloquent advocate for the conservation of our natural resources.

Dr. Stebbins, you live through those you have and will continue to affect through your contributions to herpetology and conservation of our natural heritage.


Suggested Reading

Stebbins, R. C.. 2003. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Stebbins, R. C., and S. M. McGinnis. 2013. A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California. California Natural History Guides. University of California Press

Stebbins, R. C.. 2012. Connecting with Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective. National Science Teachers Association Press.