The Lord of Lizard Land: UCSC’s charismatic biologist Barry Sinervo remembered for passion and commitment
THE HERE & NOW: Known as ‘Dr. Lizardo’ on the UC Santa Cruz campus, evolutionary biologist Barry Sinervo brought zeal and creativity to the effort to document climate change
There is a tract of land, about 80 miles east of Santa Cruz, on the far side of Pacheco Pass, somewhere in the gently rolling hills where the Coast Range empties out into the Great Central Valley.
It’s not marked on Google Maps, but in the mind of herpetologist Barry Sinervo, multitudes of his biology students at UC Santa Cruz, and in-the-know colleagues and researchers around the world, this remote, largely treeless and almost entirely human-free acreage is famously known as “Lizard Land.”
A year ago, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that upended his day job at UCSC, Sinervo, a cancer survivor, spent an entire month in a hauled-in trailer at Lizard Land. He had been making the trek from Santa Cruz, alone and with students and fellow researchers—almost daily for large parts of the year—for 30 years, but the pandemic gave him the opportunity to give up the commute for a while. At dusk, he went out looking for burrowing owls and kit foxes. But during the day, he lived among the lizards.
The man known as “Dr. Lizardo” died March 15 of a rare form of cancer at the age of 60. If his 2020 solo sojourn at Lizard Land suggests that he was some kind of brilliant misanthrope who would rather commune with lizards than humans, that’s certainly not the impression you get from his many students, friends, colleagues, and followers emanating from a national reputation in evolutionary biology.
Sinervo was, in fact, a dynamic and popular teacher who inspired generations of students largely through his signature class Behavioral Ecology. And he was also a publicly minded scientist known for his pioneering work in the field of animal behavior in the face of climate change, and the zeal with which he communicated his ideas. He was as much an evangelist in the human world for awareness of climate change as he was a devoted researcher of lizards.
For much of the past 20 years of his career, Sinervo has been telling anyone who would listen about extinction patterns of wildlife and the role climate change has made in driving that extinction.
“At any party, if you would him get talking, he would take center stage,” said his widow Jeanie Vogelzang. “He was very charismatic. He used to joke, ‘Oh, I’m just the country lizard doctor,’ but he was not like the stuffy academic at all. He made jokes. He was fun.”
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With a years-long struggle against cancer in mind, he was also aware of the metaphorical parallels between the extinction of lizard populations and his own fight for survival. “It’s a beautiful allegory,” he told me in 2019. “From the point of view of cancer, it is your own body taking over and trying desperately to get everything it can. That’s an allegory for what drives climate change. It’s us. (My struggles with cancer) are at the core of my deep understanding of where we get hope.”
Biologist Bruce Lyon was a friend and colleague who co-taught a class alongside Sinervo for years at UCSC. “He was a character,” said Lyon who has been fielding expressions of sympathy from all over the world. “He was fun to be around. He was just so excited to think about stuff. I’ve told colleagues in the past, this is as close to a genius as I will ever meet, just because of his creativity and really thinking deeply and making connections across disciplines.”
Sinervo’s national reputation and influence came in large part from his insights into combining mathematical game theory and biological research, most notably a discovery that a specific species of lizard engaged in a reproductive behavior much like the playground game rock-paper-scissors.
But in the last decade, Sinervo was consumed by climate change and the evidence he was seeing in lizard populations of the potentially devastating effects it’s likely to have if left unchecked. Paul Koch, UCSC’s Dean of Physical and Biological Sciences Division, is an earth and planetary scientist by training whose research has dealt with the distant past. Koch and Sinervo were able to collaborate by using models on past extinctions to make predictions about what’s to come.
“It was just way outside of the box,” Koch said of Sinervo’s thinking, “which was pretty typical of him. I don’t think Barry believed in boxes. His brain was very free-ranging.”
In 2010, Sinervo led a team of biologists in findings published in the journal Science that uncovered patterns of extinction in lizard populations worldwide linked to climate change. “He took something descriptive and made it predictive,” said Koch. “When we get to x-number of hot days per year, it’s going to cause populations to crash. Looking backward in time, he could predict where species should have been. He developed a deep understanding of what’s driving all this.”
A native of Canada, Sinervo grew up in a logging family in the Thunder Bay region of Ontario. After an academic career that took him to Nova Scotia, the University of Washington in Seattle, a post-doc fellowship at Berkeley, and a faculty slot at Indiana University, he landed at UCSC in 1997, where he settled with his wife Jeanie and son Ari.
According to his wife, Sinervo was one of those lucky people who always knew his life’s mission, from his Ontario boyhood when he developed a passion for animals, particularly lizards.
“He worked up until the day he died,” said Jeanie. “He sent a manuscript to (friend and collaborator) Don Miles at 1:30 on Monday (March 15). He co-taught his class, he wrote a book, he was doing it all. He had lost his ability to talk, but he would just keep moving forward.”
For Lyon, who was hired at UCSC at the same time as Sinervo, Dr. Lizardo never lost sight of the tiny creature that led him to his life’s work.
“Sometimes top-notch scientists might be good at writing papers and thinking but not the best in the field,” said fellow Canadian Lyon. “But I went out to his field site near Los Banos, and Barry was just astonishing as a lizard catcher. He had a deep emotional attachment to lizards. He used to tell his students all the time, ‘If you really want to do good science on reptiles, you gotta think like a lizard.’ He really thought like a lizard. That was his passion. He understood them.”