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Biodiversity Blog


History of UT Herpetology, Part 3: Eric Pianka, the "Lizard Man"

Pianka office
 Pianka in his office.

Eric Pianka hasn’t earned the nickname “Lizard Man” for nothing. His lifelong work with lizards started as a childhood fascination for them, and eventually made him one of the world authorities on lizard ecology. But with 150 publications and a career spanning over half a century at UT, maybe Pianka should have a few more nicknames.

For his undergraduate years, Pianka went to Carleton College where he chose biology as the right path. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle. He followed with post-doctoral work at Princeton University with the eminent ecologist Robert MacArthur. MacArthur was highly influential for Pianka, and the two co-authored a classic paper on optimization strategies in ecology.

Around this time when Pianka was just starting his career, ecology and evolution were two largely separate areas of research. But he would begin to challenge this. He tried to merge the two fields by revealing ways evolution impinges on ecology and how ecology influences evolutionary patterns. This resulted in his 1973 book Evolutionary Ecology, and it caused many scientists to think differently about biological diversity.

More specifically for how this fit into Pianka’s research at the time, he was interested in understanding why a certain region, such as the Great Victoria Desert in Australia, would have enormous lizard biodiversity, and another area might have only have just one or two lizard species. Pianka addressed this basic question from a broad geographic and evolutionary perspective as well as from a more local and contemporary perspective involving species interactions within local habitats.

Pianka’s colleagues consider him to be one of the last great “explorer naturalists” as he spent a great deal of time in the field in places all over the world. Many of these locations include challenging deserts such as the Great Basin, Sonora, Kalahari, and Great Victorian Desert. The desert was one of Pianka’s favorite places to be for the solitude it offered.  

 Pianka 6
 Some of Pianka's books.

Many of Pianka’s students have gone on to have impactful careers of their own. Some students include Kirk Winemiller at Texas A&M and Raymond Huey at the University of Washington. Winemiller is an American ecologist, known for research on community ecology, life history theory, food webs, aquatic ecosystems, tropical ecology and fish biology. Huey is a biologist specializing in evolutionary physiology.

Pianka’s honors are numerous, some of which include Guggenheim Fellow (1980), American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow (1981), Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professor (1986), Fulbright Senior Research Scholar (1990), and elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2014). Pianka received the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science. In 2015, he received the Eminent Ecologist Award, the highest award of the Ecological Society of America.

An Australian skink (Ctenotus piankai) and two lizard parasites (Oochoristica piankai, Skrjabinodon pinakai) are named after Pianka. In 2009, Pianka and his research were featured in Lizard Kings, a wildlife documentary that premiered in 2009 on the PBS NOVA series. 

Pianka retired from UT in 2020 as a Denton Cooley Professor Emeritus in the departments of Zoology and Integrative Biology. 

We have much more detailed article on Pianka in "Influential People in Biodiversity."   Also check out part one of our articles on the history of UT Herpetology as well as part two about the work of Dr. Mike Ryan. Part four explores the establishment of the Texas Memorial Museum and current research in herpetology as of 2022.

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