Rick Shine was born in Brisbane in 1950. He attended schools in Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra, and completed his university studies at the Australian National University with an Honours degree in zoology in 1971 (supervised by Dr Richard E. Barwick). His Ph D was obtained from the University of New England in Armidale, under the supervision of Professor Harold F. Heatwole, and dealt with the field ecology of Australian venomous snakes. It was the first detailed ecological research on these animals. He also began working on broader questions in evolutionary biology, collaboratively with another student, James J. Bull, currently the Johann Friedrich Miescher Regents Professor in Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin.
His brother is scientist John Shine. Uniquely, both brothers are Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science, have received awards from that body, and have won the nation’s top award in research, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science (John in 2010, Rick in 2016).
Shine conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City (1976 to 1978) in the research groups of Professor Eric Charnov and Professor John M. Legler. He returned to Australia to take up a postdoctoral position at the University of Sydney (with Professor Charles L. Birch and Dr. Gordon C. Grigg) in 1978, and was appointed to a lectureship at that institution in 1980. He became a Research Associate of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1988. He was appointed to a Professorship at the University of Sydney in 2003, having relinquished undergraduate teaching to concentrate on research and graduate training in 2002, under fellowships from the Australian Research Council (Australian Professorial Fellowship 2002-2005; Federation Fellowship 2006-2010; Laureate Fellowship 2013-2018).
His early research focused on the ecology of snakes, and on the evolutionary factors that have shaped patterns in reptile reproduction (such as the transition from egg-laying to live-bearing, and the evolution of size differences between the sexes, and the selective milieu driving variation in reproductive traits). His initial studies were based mostly in Australia, and mostly with venomous snakes, but he later conducted research on the behavioural ecology of snakes in several parts of the world, notably on red-sided gartersnakes Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis in Canada, vipers Vipera berus in Sweden and France, island pit vipers Gloydius shedaoensis in China, seasnakes Laticauda and Emydocephalus annulatus in the Pacific islands, and reticulated pythons Python reticulatus in Indonesia.
He also dissected thousands of preserved snakes in museum collections to document basic natural history patterns of hundreds of species from Australia, the Pacific, and southern Africa. In Australia, he initiated three long-term field-based ecological research programs; one on developmental biology and phenotypic plasticity in scincid lizards of the Brindabella Range near Canberra, jointly with Melanie Elphick; one on the endangered broad-headed snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) near Nowra, jointly with Jonathan Webb; and one on snakes of the Adelaide River floodplain near Darwin, jointly with several postdoctoral collaborators including Thomas Madsen and Gregory P. Brown.
The arrival of the invasion front of the highly toxic cane toad (Bufo marinus or Rhinella marina, in alternative naming schemes) at the tropical study site in 2005 prompted a major expansion of the research program, beginning with a central focus on the ecological impact of toads on native fauna, but later expanding to aspects of toad biology and toad control. The discovery that the toad invasion front had accelerated markedly through time, because of much more rapid dispersal by individual toads at the frontline, stimulated another new research program. With colleagues Benjamin L. Phillips and Gregory P. Brown, Shine proposed that the evolutionary acceleration of the toad invasion was caused by a process different from the adaptive processes envisaged by mainstream evolutionary biology. The new explanation relied upon spatial sorting of traits that affected dispersal rates of toads, with only the fastest-moving individuals being able to stay near the increasingly rapidly moving invasion front. Interbreeding among those fast-moving individuals produced progeny that in some cases were even quicker than their parents, giving rise to a progressive acceleration in invasion speed over time, even if there were no advantages to fast dispersal for the individuals concerned.
Research by Shine’s group (“Team Bufo”) also measured ecological impacts of invasive cane toads, revealing a complex pattern whereby some native species benefit rather than suffer from toad invasion. The major victims are large predators (poisoned by eating toxic toads) and the main beneficiaries are the species previously consumed by those predators. The research then extended to new methods for toad control, and Shine (in collaboration with Michael Crossland and Robert Capon) found that the cannibalistic nature of cane toad tadpoles can be turned against them. Toad tadpoles are attracted to the toxins of adult toads (which they use as a cue to find newly laid toad eggs) and so can be trapped using the toxin as a bait. Within the first year of its use by community groups, this method is thought to have removed more than a million cane toad tadpoles from natural waterbodies. The same research team also discovered a suppression pheromone, produced by older toad tadpoles to kill younger ones, that may be useful for toad control.
Shine suggested a new method of buffering the impact of cane toads on vulnerable native predators, by releasing small cane toads at the invasion front (to induce taste aversion, by inducing nausea and thus discouraging predators from eating fatally large toads). Although initially greeted with scepticism, field studies validated its effectiveness and the method is now being widely applied in northwestern Australia.
Shine has published more than 900 papers in professional journals, written two books (Australian Snakes. A Natural History, 1991; Cane Toad Wars, University of California Press, 2017) and co-edited another (Grigg, G. C., R. Shine, and H. Ehmann, eds. 1985. Biology of Australasian Frogs and Reptiles).
He received Whitley Awards from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW for both of the earlier publications. He also received the "Distinguished Herpetologist" award from the Herpetologists' League (1994), the Clarke Medal by The Royal Society of New South Wales (1999), the E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award from the American Society of Naturalists (2000), the Henry S. Fitch Award from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (2003), the Mueller Medal from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (2005), the Eureka Prize for Biodiversity Research from the Australian Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens (2006), the Macfarlane Burnet Medal from the Australian Academy of Science (2008), the Australian Natural History Medallion from the Royal Society and Society of Naturalists, Victoria (2009), and the Walter Burfitt Prize from the Royal Society of New South Wales (2010). He was elected as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences in 2003, and appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2005.
He was awarded a second Eureka Prize (for promoting public understanding of science research) in 2011, and a third Eureka Prize (as an outstanding mentor of young researchers) in 2013. He is the only person to have won three Eureka Prizes in different categories. Shine won the NSW Science and Engineering Award for Plant and Animal Research in 2011 (awarded by the NSW Government), and in the same year, his research team won the Environment section of the inaugural Australian Innovation Challenge Awards. In 2012 Shine was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Ecological Society of America, and the same organisation presented him with the Robert Whittaker Distinguished Ecologist Award in 2014. Shine’s work was profiled by the magazine Science in June 2012.
In 2015 Shine was elected to presidency of the world’s largest scientific herpetological society, the Society for The Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (the first person from outside North America to be honoured in this way). He was appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 2015. In October 2016 he was selected as the New South Wales Scientist of the Year (by the state government) and received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science (awarded by the federal government).
A new identified species of venomous Australian snake, Shine's Whipsnake, Demansia shinei, was named in his honour in 2007.