Peter the Anteater has evolved over the years, but the likeness freshly emblazoned on UCI's water tower by painter Paul Borne is closest to the "B.C." comic strip character that originally inspired the offbeat mascot. Steve Zylius / UCI

If the Peter the Anteater mascot newly painted on the University of California, Irvine’s water tower bears more than a passing resemblance to the anteater character in the “B.C.” comic strip, there’s a good reason: The humpbacked, sticky-tongued cartoon critter is an early ancestor of Peter’s.

Since UCI students voted for an anteater as their official mascot in 1965, Johnny Hart’s creation has been voted Mashable’s Mascot Madness champion (2015) and has inspired countless likenesses – from stately bronzes that adorn UCI’s Student Center and Bren Events Center to kitschy keychains and other snout-nosed paraphernalia that remain perennial favorites at UCI’s bookstore. The 58-foot-wide version now looming 102 feet over West Peltason Drive is just the latest incarnation.

“Zot!” – part of the campus lexicon – also dates back to “B.C.” The rallying cry, ZotMail, ZotPortal, ZotWheels and Zot-n-Go all stem from the smacking sound Hart’s anteater makes when he gloms onto prey.

Hart, who died of a stroke in 2007, never visited UCI, but he was thrilled when asked if the university could use his anteater as a mascot model, says his daughter Patti Pomeroy, business manager for New York-based John Hart Studios.

“I was only about 10 at the time, but I remember it was kind of a big deal. My mother cut out all the newspaper articles about the mascot and put them in a scrapbook,” she says. “Dad was always really proud of it.”

Peter the Anteater’s origins can be traced to the summer of ’65, before UCI had even opened. Pat Glasgow ’68 was working as a lifeguard at Newport Beach when the idea came to him out of the blue.

“I was at the beach thinking about how we were going to be UCI’s charter students and how we needed a mascot,” he recalls. “It was the ’60s. I was part of a generation that questioned everything. So I wasn’t thinking about a traditional mascot, like Tommy the Trojan or a bear. Don’t ask me how or why, but the word ‘anteater’ just came to me.”

Once classes started, other students – namely Glasgow’s good friend and fellow water polo player Bob Ernst ’67 and Schuyler Hadley Bassett ’70 – jumped on the anteater bandwagon. They held an impromptu vote at a school dance in favor of the anteater, but university administrators insisted on a formal campuswide election pitting Peter against more conventional mascots, including an eagle and a unicorn.

“A lot of people thought we were turning the mascot into a farce,” Glasgow says. “But the anteater was just an antihero. He was kind of standing up for passiveness. But when backed into a corner, anteaters will fight.”

One pre-election night in Bassett’s dorm room that may or may not have involved beer, Glasgow says, the students drew an anteater based not on Hart’s comic but on a somewhat less wholesome symbol: the Playboy bunny. Bassett even copyrighted the image of “Peter Playboy” sporting a bow tie and rabbit ears.

“We mimeographed 200 copies, distributed them around campus, and they disappeared immediately,” Glasgow says. “Students were using them to decorate their dorm rooms and notebooks.”

In November 1965, after students officially voted in the anteater, many embraced their far-out mascot – even founding Chancellor Daniel G. Aldrich Jr.

“After the election, Dr. Dan came to one of our water polo games. He was shouting ‘Zot!’ the loudest,” recalls Glasgow, one of the first UCI students to earn NCAA All-American honors. (Now retired in Newport Beach, he served as a volunteer men’s water polo coach at UCI from 1997 to 2008.)

Glasgow says that he, Ernst and Bassett wrote to Hart asking if they could mimic his anteater and “Zot!” (In a special follow-up election, students opted for a mascot based on the B.C. anteater over the Playboy version.)

“We never heard back from him, but many years later I learned that he had sent a letter to the university saying he’d be pleased,” Glasgow says. Hart also sent an original autographed drawing of an anteater bearing UCI’s colors.

Today, Hart’s grandson Mason Mastroianni is drawing the comic strip and says the anteater is one of his favorite “B.C.” characters.

He and his mother, Patti Pomeroy, are impressed with UCI’s many artistic interpretations of anteaters over the years, as well as the mascot’s evolution from cuddly, oversized plush toy to fierce competitor.

“Peter’s gotten pretty buff, compared to the anteater that my father drew,” Pomeroy says. “It’s been quite a progression.”