University of Texas at Austin

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pianka goes Nova. Super!

Eric Pianka and Gisela Kaufmann--Photo by Carsten Orlt

Eric Pianka and Gisela Kaufmann--Photo by Carsten Orlt

Sometimes it pays to read those old magazines gathering dust in doctors’ offices. That turned out to be Eric Pianka’s version of being discovered by a talent scout.

Pianka, a biologist who holds the Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professorship at the University of Texas at Austin, is the expert guide in “Lizard Kings,” a part of the Nova series on PBS. It will be shown on KUT at 7 p.m. Oct. 20, 2009.

And it’s all because Gisela Kaufmann, a documentary film producer, while waiting to see a doctor, read an article that Pianka and his colleague Samuel Sweet wrote about monitor lizards in the November 2003 “Natural History” magazine.

Pianka, one of the world’s foremost lizard experts, and Sweet, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote about how smart monitor lizards are.

A wizard of a lizard was the appropriate follow-up subject to “The Brainy Bunch,” Kaufmann’s previous documentary about cuttlefish. The Nova folks changed the name to “Kings of Camouflage” when they aired the program.

She read Pianka’s memoir, “The Lizard Man Speaks” and flew from her base in Australia to Austin to talk lizards.

And that’s what brought Kaufman and her five-member crew to Pianka’s isolated study site in the Western Australia.

It has the world’s greatest diversity of lizards, Pianka said. He ought to know since he’s studied the site for 30 years. He’s spent seven years of his life—about 10 percent—in Australia, he said.

Now Pianka, who’s perfectly happy to camp at the site with lizards, other wildlife and the wind for company, will share the site with millions of viewers.

“They took 600 hours of videotape to make what turned out to be a half an hour of me and my grad student Stephen Goodyear in the movie,” Pianka said.

Some of that video was shot from the vantage point of the lizards.

“The Oxford telemetry guys, Christian Rutz and Lucas Bluff, custom make these video cams for each lizard,” Pianka said. “The first thing they do is figure out how big the lizard is and then make it only a maximum of 5 percent of the lizard’s body weight or it’s too heavy.”

While Pianka is glad to show off the intelligence of monitor lizards, he hopes that viewers understand the strong concerns he has for the continued existence of monitor lizards, a planet inhabitant for more than 65 million years.

He has seen and documented changes at his study site that do not bode well for monitors.

In his interviews with Kaufmann, Pianka explained the relentless chain of changes he’s seen and documented at this site that threaten monitor lizards.

“I talk about climate change and explain how precipitation has increased markedly at my study site over the past few decades. I explain that the result is increased productivity and shrub encroachment, which increases vegetative cover and reduces open space–this in turn has an impact on the insect fauna (food for most lizards and birds) which translates into fundamental changes at the ecosystem level.”

Perhaps this Nova star turn for Pianka, and more importantly for monitor lizards, will result in greater awareness of their situation.

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