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Eric Pianka

Eric R. Pianka (born 23 January 1939) is an American biologist, best known for his contributions to herpetology and evolutionary ecology. He is nicknamed "The Lizard Man".



Eric R. Pianka was born in Siskiyou County along the California-Oregon border in 1939. At age 13, he was seriously injured in a bazooka blast in the front yard of his childhood home in Yreka, California.[1] 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. Pianka's childhood injury left him with a short and partially paralyzed leg. 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).[1]

He graduated from Carleton College (B.A., 1960) and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1965. He went on to do postdoctoral work with the famed ecologist Robert MacArthur at Princeton University. This period, during which he worked closely with the temporarily studentless MacArthur, had a major influence on Pianka's thinking (Pianka and Vitt, 2003). Together, the two ecologists discussed the basic theoretical aspects of community ecology. The fruits of their collaboration included the classic paper "On optimal use of a patchy environment" (MacArthur and Pianka, 1966). Pianka frequently mentions MacArthur in his lectures and keeps a webpage for his deceased mentor and colleague.[2] In some ways, Pianka's own research program expands upon and continues the work that he and MacArthur began.

Since 1968, Pianka has been on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Despite his injuries, he is one of the world's most accomplished field ecologists and has performed extensive ecological investigations on vertebrate communities in three desert systems on three continents: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora Deserts in North America; the Kalahari in Africa; and the Great Victoria desert in Western Australia. His monographic treatment of this work is a landmark ecological synthesis (Pianka, 1986). Pianka's interests are broad, and his research includes empirical and theoretical components of natural history, systematics, community and landscape ecology [3]. His current work focuses on lizard communities in Australia. This research includes projects on the phylogeny and ecology of a number of groups of Australian lizards and an extensive study of the unique biotic landscape produced by Australian brush fires.[4] In his research, Pianka combines traditional field biological methods with recent technological innovations in statistical analysis, phylogenetic reconstruction, and imaging of the Earth's surface in attempts to answer major questions about evolution and ecology.

Pianka has trained a number of successful scientists. Twelve of his former graduate students are professors at major universities, among them Kirk Winemiller, a professor at Texas A&M University [5] and Raymond Huey, a professor at the University of Washington [6]. Additionally, he teaches a range of popular undergraduate courses; he received an award for excellence in teaching from UT Austin in 1999.[7]

Pianka was a 1978 Guggenheim Fellow, a 1981 American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, and a 1990 Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. He has received numerous awards, and at least three species, one lizard and two lizard parasites, are named after him.[8]. A symposium in his honor was held by the Herpetologist's League in 2004. The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists passed a resolution on the word "Piankafication" to describe Pianka's influence on evolutionary biology and ecology at their business meeting in 2004.[9] In this resolution, they noted that he has had "vast and immeasurable influence on several fields of evolutionary ecology" and that his "years in the field have set the standard for both natural history and for ecological studies, resulting in publications that have lain the foundation for research programs..."

Pianka has produced over a hundred scientific papers, many of them highly cited and influential, and a classic textbook, Evolutionary Ecology.[10] He also writes for the general public, and his book "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity," coauthored with longtime collaborator Laurie Vitt, won both the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Author Award at The University of Texas at Austin and the Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.[11]


Main article: Mims-Pianka controversy

Pianka's March, 2006 acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist award by the The Texas Academy of Science resulted in controversy in the popular press when Forrest Mims claimed that Pianka had advocated genocide.[12] Mims' affiliate at the Discovery Institute, William Dembski, then informed the Department of Homeland Security because he and Mims felt that Pianka's speech fomented bioterrorism.[13] This resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewing Pianka in Austin.[14]

Pianka has stated that Mims took his statements out of context and that Pianka was stating what would happen from biological principles alone if present human population trends continue, and that he was not in any way advocating for it to happen. The host of the speech, the Texas Academy of Sciences, has released a statement stating that "many of Dr. Pianka's statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized."[15]


  1. ^ a b Bazooka Injuries
  2. ^ Robert MacArthur website
  3. ^ Pianka lab site
  4. ^ Current research
  5. ^ Winemiller lab
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Undergraduate courses
  8. ^ Honors and awards
  9. ^ ASIH Resolution on Piankification
  10. ^ Eric Pianka's "obituary"
  11. ^ Awards for "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity"
  12. ^ The Citizen Scientist - "Meeting Dr. Doom"
  13. ^ Uncommon Descent (by William Dembski) - "Eric Pianka: The Department of Homeland Security needs to interview you"
  14. ^ "Professor's population speeches unnerve some", American Statesman, 2006-04-05. 
  15. ^ Texas Academy of Science statement on Pianka. The Panda's Thumb. Retrieved on 2006-04-08.


  • Pianka ER (1994). The Lizard Man Speaks. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-76552-5. 
  • MacArthur RH, Pianka ER (1966). "On the optimal use of a patchy environment.". American Naturalist 100 (916): 603–9.
  • Pianka ER (1986). Ecology and Natural History of Desert Lizards. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08148-4. 


  • Pianka, Eric R. Evolutionary Ecology, Fourth Edition, 1983, ISBN 0-06-045216-1

See also

  • Alistair Beaton's novel A Planet for the President for a fictional treatment of mass population reduction.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Eric_Pianka". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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