Charles Sutherland Elton and the beginning of Modern Animal Ecology

Food Chains were published in 1927 by Charles Elton

Food Chains were published in 1927 by Charles Elton

On March 29, 1900, English zoologist and animal ecologist Charles Sutherland Elton was born. Elton‘s name is associated with the establishment of modern population and community ecology, including studies of invasive organisms. In 1927, Elton published his now classic book Animal Ecology, in which he took up the concept of food chains that had been originally introduced by the African-Arab scientist and philosopher Al-Jahiz in the 9th century.

Charles Elton attended Liverpool College and Oxford University and graduated in zoology in 1922. He intended to turn natural history into the science of ecology by applying the scientific method to study the lives of animals in their natural habitats and their interactions with the environment. He was appointed assistant to Julian Huxley during his studies and accompanied him on an expedition to Spitsbergen. There, they made an ecological survey of Arctic vertebrates. The project later continued on three subsequent Arctic expeditions in the years 1923, 1924, and 1930. Due to Elton’s experience with the Arctic, the Hudson Bay Company consulted him and he began studying fluctuations in the populations of animal species of interest to the fur trade. These studies were later followed by similar research on British mouse and vole populations.

To one of Charles Elton’s greatest influencers belonged Alexander Carr-Saunders, who published ‘The Population Problem: A Study of Human Evolution‘ in 1922. The work outlines the effect of human overpopulation on flora and fauna on Earth. The work’s ideas were later applied on animals by Charles Elton. In 1932, he established the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford. It became a center for the collection of data on fluctuations in animal populations.

When the Journal of Animal Ecology was founded, Charles Elton became its first editor. In 1936, he was appointed reader in animal ecology at the Oxford University. Further, the Corpus Christi College elected him a senior research fellow. During the time of World War II, the Bureau of Animal Population was given the task to find efficient methods for the control of rats, mice and rabbits by the Agricultural Research Council. Elton later began a 20-year survey of animals and their interrelationships on Oxford University’s Wytham estate. He also continued his studies in tropical America after his retirement.

To Charles Elton’s biggest achievements belongs his book ‘Animal Ecology‘, published in 1927. In it, Elton describes the principles of ecological studies of animal behaviour and life history, such as food chains, the size of food items, the ecological niche and the concept of a pyramid of numbers as a method of representing the structure of an ecosystem in terms of feeding relationships. After the Second World War, Elton became much more concerned with the impact of invasive species on natural ecosystems. His 1958 book The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants founded invasion ecology as a separate sub-discipline. The first part of the book focuses on the invader species and their mode of transport into the new environment. The second part of the book focuses on the struggle between invasive species and the indigenous, though some invaders enter habitats with no prior species filling their specific niche. The final part of The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants deals with the issue of conservation and its importance to maintain species diversity

Elton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953, which awarded him the Darwin Medal in 1970. In 1967 he was awarded the Linné Medal of the Linnean Society of London. In 1968 he was appointed an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Charles Sutherland Elton died on May 1, 1991, at age 91.

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