Robert Stebbins, UC Berkeley professor emeritus, dies at 98

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Known for his love of nature and teaching, UC Berkeley professor emeritus Robert Stebbins died Monday surrounded by his family. He was 98.

During his time on campus, Stebbins became the first faculty member to teach herpetology, the  study of amphibians and reptiles, and the first herpetologist curator at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

“He always saw his role as education, trying to help people understand,” said David Wake, Stebbins’ colleague and a professor in the department of integrative biology. “Just a quiet, reserved, very sincere person (with a) deep love for animals, plants and nature.”

Stebbins’ passion for nature came from hikes through the Santa Monica hills and from his father, who took him birdwatching when he was a child, said Theodore Papenfuss, a research scientist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

One of his notable discoveries was a salamander ring species in California’s Central Valley. A ring species has a geographic distribution that forms a ring that overlaps at its ends. All species interbreed with their immediate neighbors except the “ends” where they overlap.

“If you’re thinking about how species form, how species come into being, then Stebbins’ work is absolutely fundamental,” Wake said. “It may be one of the most important pieces of work published in the 20th century.”

In 1966, Stebbins published “A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians,” a guide elementary and doctoral students alike use in their outdoor activities, according to Papenfuss.

“People who work with the guide don’t even say what it is,” Papenfuss said. “They just say, ‘It’s my Stebbins guide’, and everybody knows.”

Recently, California researchers discovered four legless lizard species and named one of them — Anniella stebbinsi — after Stebbins to honor his contribution to the field.

Stebbins also took an active role in desert preservation.

He once took former U.S. senator Alan Cranston to a desert in Southern California to observe the environment and organisms, Wake said. His activism in contacting lawmakers helped lead to the creation of Mojave National Preserve and the expansion of Death Valley National Park in 1994.

Wake recalled a time when Stebbins was particularly upset by off-road vehicles damaging desert environments and decided to get to know the people driving them.

“These people who are doing this are good people,” Stebbins told Wake. “They take their children out on the weekends in the desert. They’re trying to enjoy it, but they don’t understand how.”

Stebbins came back from one of those trips “almost weeping,” Wake remembered.

“Here he was battling these people,” Wake said. “At the same time, he had the deepest sympathy for them.”

Stebbins married Anna-Rose Stebbins in 1941 and is survived by three children.

Contact Daniel Tutt at [email protected].