Eric Pianka

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Eric Pianka
Eric R. Pianka

(1939-01-23) January 23, 1939 (age 82)
EducationB. A., (Biology), Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, 1960
Ph. D., (Zoology), University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, 1965
D. Sc., (Ecology), University of Western Australia, Nedlands, W. A., 1990
TitleProfessor of Integrative Biology
at University of Texas at Austin.
HonorsGuggenheim Fellow, 1978
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1981
Biography in "American Men and Women of Science"
Biography in "Who's Who in Frontier Science and Technology"
Biography in "Who's Who in America"
Biography in "Who's Who in the World"
Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professorship in Zoology, 1986-
Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, Australia, 1990
Big XII Faculty Fellowship, 2000–2001
Distinguished Herpetologist, Herpetologists' League, 2004
Distinguished Scientist, Texas Academy of Science, 2006
Fellow, Ecological Society of America, 2013
American Academy of Arts and Science, elected 2014
Auffenberg Medal for excellence in monitor research, 2015 Interdisciplinary World Conference on Monitor Lizards, Phranakhon Rajabhat University, Bangkok
Eminent Ecologist, Ecological Society of America, 2015
WebsiteU Texas at Austin writings

Eric Rodger Pianka (born January 23, 1939) is an American herpetologist and evolutionary ecologist.[1]

Early life[edit]

Pianka was born in Siskiyou County in 1939. At age 13, he was seriously injured in a bazooka blast in the front yard of his childhood home in Yreka, California.[2] 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.[2]

Pianka 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 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.[3] In 1966, with MacArthur, Pianka coauthored the paper, "On optimal use of a patchy environment".[4] Pianka frequently mentions MacArthur in his lectures and keeps a webpage for his deceased mentor and colleague.[5] 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. His research centers on empirical and theoretical components of natural history, systematics, community and landscape ecology.[6]

Pianka 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).[citation needed]

Pianka's current work focuses on lizard communities in Australia. His research projects include study of 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.[7] His favorite lizard is a small Australian goanna, Varanus eremius.[8] 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 other scientists and twelve of his former graduate students are professors at major universities, including Kirk Winemiller, a professor at Texas A&M University,[9] and Raymond Huey, a professor at the University of Washington.[10] Additionally, he teaches a range of popular undergraduate courses; he received an award for excellence in teaching from UT Austin in 1999.[11]

Texas Academy of Science speech[edit]

Pianka's acceptance speech[12] for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science[13] resulted in a controversy in the popular press when Forrest Mims, vice-chair of the Academy's section on environmental science, claimed in the Society for Amateur Scientists e-journal The Citizen Scientist that Pianka had "endorsed the elimination of 95 percent of the human population" through a disease such as an airborne strain of the Ebola virus. Mims claimed that Pianka said the Earth would not survive unless its population was reduced by 95%, suggesting that the planet would be "better off" if the human population were reduced and that a mutant strain of Ebola would be the most efficient means. Mims' affiliate at the Discovery Institute, William Dembski, then informed the Department of Homeland Security that Pianka's speech may have been intended to foment bioterrorism.[14] This resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewing Pianka in Austin.[15]

Pianka has stated that Mims took his statements out of context and that he was simply describing 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 Texas Academy, which hosted the speech, released a statement asserting that "Many of Dr. Pianka's statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized."[16] However, Kenneth Summy,[17] an Academy member who observed the speech, wrote a letter[18] of support for Mims' account, saying "Dr. Pianka chose to deliver an inflammatory message in his keynote address, so he should not be surprised to be the recipient of a lot of criticism from TAS membership. Forrest Mims did not misrepresent anything regarding the presentation."

Pianka appeared on NBC-affiliate KXAN Austin[19] and on two cable talk-shows and posted a statement on his University of Texas website that said in part:[20]

I have two grandchildren and I want them to inherit a stable Earth. But I fear for them. Humans have overpopulated the Earth and in the process have created an ideal nutritional substrate on which bacteria and viruses (microbes) will grow and prosper. We are behaving like bacteria growing on an agar plate,[21] flourishing until natural limits are reached or until another microbe colonizes and takes over, using them as their resource. In addition to our extremely high population density, we are social and mobile, exactly the conditions that favor growth and spread of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes. I believe it is only a matter of time until microbes once again assert control over our population, since we are unwilling to control it ourselves. This idea has been espoused by ecologists for at least four decades and is nothing new. People just don't want to hear it. I do not bear any ill will toward people. However, I am convinced that the world, including all humanity, WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us. Simply stopping the destruction of rainforests would help mediate some current planetary ills, including the release of previously unknown pathogens. The ancient Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" comes to mind – we are living in one of the most interesting times humans have ever experienced. For example, consider the manifold effects of global warming. We need to make a transition to a sustainable world. If we don't, nature is going to do it for us in ways of her own choosing. By definition, these ways will not be ours and they won't be much fun. Think about that.

As a consequence of the controversy, Pianka and members of the Texas Academy of Science received death threats.[22][23] According to Pianka, his daughters were worried about his and their safety, and his life had been "turned upside-down by 'right-wing fools'."[24]

Awards and accolades[edit]

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, an Australian lizard (Ctenotus piankai)[25] and two lizard parasites, are named after him.[26] 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.[27] 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 received the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science. He and his research were featured in a wildlife documentary on monitor lizards — "Lizard Kings" — which premiered nationally on the PBS NOVA series in October 2009.

In 2015, Pianka was awarded the Auffenberg Medal in recognition of his extensive research on monitor lizards by the Monitor Lizard Specialist Group. In the same year, he received the highest award of the Ecological Society of America, the Eminent Ecologist Award.[28]


Pianka has produced about 200 scientific papers, as well as the textbook, Evolutionary Ecology, which has gone through seven editions and has been translated into five languages. In 2003, he also published Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity, coauthored with longtime collaborator Laurie Vitt, won the Grand Prize at the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Author Award at The University of Texas at Austin as well as the Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.[29]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • Pianka, Eric R. (1983), Evolutionary Ecology (Fourth Edition), ISBN 0-06-045216-1 Read on line at


  • MacArthur RH and ER Pianka (1966). "On the optimal use of a patchy environment". American Naturalist. 100 (916): 603–9. doi:10.1086/282454. JSTOR 2459298. S2CID 86675558.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1966. Latitudinal gradients in species diversity: A review of concepts. American Naturalist 100: 33–46.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1970. On r and K selection. American Naturalist 104: 592–597.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1973. The structure of lizard communities. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 53–74.
  • Pianka, E. R. and W. S. Parker. 1975. Age-specific reproductive tactics. American Naturalist 109: 453–464.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1976. Natural selection of optimal reproductive tactics. American Zoologist 16: 775–784.
  • Schall, J. J. and E. R. Pianka. 1978. Geographical trends in numbers of species. Science 201: 679–686.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1980. Guild structure in desert lizards. Oikos 35: 194–201.
  • Huey, R. B. and E. R. Pianka. 1981. Ecological consequences of foraging mode. Ecology 62: 991–999.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1985. Some intercontinental comparisons of desert lizards. National Geographic Research 1: 490–504.
  • Winemiller, K. O. and E. R. Pianka. 1990. Organization in natural assemblages of desert lizards and tropical fishes. Ecological Monographs 60: 27–55.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1994. Comparative ecology of Varanus in the Great Victoria desert. Australian Journal of Ecology 19: 395–408.
  • Pianka, E. R. 1995. Evolution of body size: Varanid lizards as a model system. American Naturalist 146: 398–414.
  • Haydon, D. T. and E. R. Pianka. 1999. Metapopulation theory, landscape models, and species diversity. EcoScience 6: 316–328.
  • Huey, R. B., E. R. Pianka, and L. J. Vitt. 2001. How often do lizards "run on empty?" Ecology 82: 1–7.
  • Pianka, E. R. 2002. A general review of zoological trends during the 20th century. A. Legakis, S. Sfenthourakis, R. Polymeni, and M. Thessalou-Legaki, eds. Proc. 18th International Congress of Zoology, pp. 3–13.
  • Vitt, L. J., E. R. Pianka, W. E. Cooper, and K. Schwenk. 2003. History and the global ecology of squamate reptiles. American Naturalist 162: 44–60.
  • Sweet, Samuel S. and Eric R. Pianka, 2003. The Lizard Kings: Small Monitors Roam to the East of an Unseen Frontier; Mammals Roam to the West, Natural History, November, 2003.
  • Pianka, E. R. and S. S. Sweet. 2005. Integrative biology of sticky feet in geckos. BioEssays 27: 647–652.
  • Vitt, L. J. and E. R. Pianka. 2005. Deep history impacts present day ecology and biodiversity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 102: 7877–7881.
  • Pianka, E. R. and S. E. Goodyear. 2012. Lizard responses to wildfire in arid interior Australia: Long-term experimental data and commonalities with other studies. Austral Ecology 37: 1–11.
  • Pianka, E. R. 2012. Can humans share spaceship earth? ("Point of View") Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 6(1): 1–24(e49).
  • Pianka, E. R. 2014. Rarity in Australian Desert Lizards. Austral Ecology 39: 214–224.
  • Winemiller, K. O., D. Fitzgerald, L. Bower, and E. R. Pianka. 2015. Functional traits, convergent evolution, and periodic tables of niches. Ecology Letters 18(8): 737–751.
  • Mesquita, D. O., G. C. Costa, R. Colli, T. B. Costa, D. B. Shepard, L. J. Vitt, and E. R. Pianka. 2016. Life history patterns of lizards of the world. The American Naturalist 187: 689–705.
  • Pianka, E.R. & S.S. Sweet. 2016. Field Observations by Two American Varanophiles. In: Proceedings of the 2015 Interdisciplinary World Conference on Monitor Lizards (ed. M. Cota), pp. 1–68. Institute for Research and Development, Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Pianka, E. R. 2017. Challenges facing today's lizard ecologists. Journal of Herpetology 51: 2-11.
  • Grundler, M R., E. R. Pianka, N. Pelegrin, M. A. Cowan, D. L. Rabosky. 2017. Stable isotope ecology of a hyper-diverse community of scincid lizards from arid Australia. PLOS One 12: DOI:10.1371.
  • Huey, R. B. and E. R. Pianka. 2017. Body temperature distributions of active diurnal lizards in three deserts: skewed up or skewed down? Functional Ecology 2017: 1-11.
  • Pianka, E. R., L. J. Vitt, N. Pelegrin, N., D. B. Fitzgerald, and K. O. Winemiller. 2017. Towards a Periodic Table of Niches or Exploring the Lizard Niche Hypervolume. The American Naturalist 190: 601-616.


  1. ^ "Eric Pianka". Biology Department at University of Texas at Austin. 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  2. ^ a b Bazooka Injuries Archived August 5, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Pianka and Vitt, 2003.
  4. ^ MacArthur and Pianka, 1966.
  5. ^ Robert MacArthur website
  6. ^ Pianka lab site Archived February 6, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Current research Archived August 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Varanus eremius
  9. ^ Winemiller lab Archived September 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Home – Raymond B. Huey
  11. ^ Undergraduate courses Archived August 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Pearcey, Rick (April 4, 2006). "Dr. "Doom" Pianka speaks: transcript from the speech that started it all". The Pearcey Report. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  13. ^ "109th Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science: Program and Abstracts (2006)". Texas Academy of Science. Archived from the original on March 4, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  14. ^ William Dembski (April 2, 2006). "Eric Pianka: The Department of Homeland Security needs to interview you". Uncommon Descent.
  15. ^ "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". Austin American-Statesman. April 5, 2006. Archived from the original on July 5, 2007. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  16. ^ "Texas Academy of Science statement on Pianka". The Panda's Thumb. Archived from the original on April 10, 2006. Retrieved April 8, 2006.
  17. ^ "Kenneth R. Summy". Biology Department of the University of Texas, Pan American.
  18. ^ Pearcey, Rick (April 12, 2006). "Support for Mims on Dr. "Doom" speech". The Pearcey Report. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  19. ^ "UT Professor Clearing The Record On Speech". NBC. April 3, 2006.
  20. ^ What nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to know Archived December 5, 2010, at the Wayback Machine – Eric R. Pianka
  21. ^ Reference provided by Pianka in his text: "Exponential Population Growth", from Pianka, E. R. Evolutionary Ecology; 6th edition; Addison–Wesley; 2000; last updated online on 7 July 2007
  22. ^ "Professor criticized over comments about impending pandemic". KTRK Houston, TX (ABC). Associated Press. April 4, 2006. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012.
  23. ^ Myers, Paul Z. "Texas Academy of Science getting death threats over Pianka". Pharyngula (blog). Archived from the original on August 5, 2011.
  24. ^ "Professor's population speeches unnerve some". American Statesman. April 5, 2006. Archived from the original on July 5, 2007.
  25. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Pianka", p. 207).
  26. ^ Honors and awards Archived August 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ ASIH Resolution on Piankification Archived September 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ "Eminent Ecologist Award". Ecological Society of America. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
  29. ^ Awards for "Lizards-Windows to the Evolution of Diversity"

External links[edit]