Elton, Charles Sutherland (1900 – 1991) English Ecologist

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Charles Sutherland Elton (1900 1991)
English ecologist

A factual, accurate, complete history of ecology as a discipline has yet to be written. When that history is finally compiled, the British ecologist Charles Sutherland Elton will stand as one of the disciplines leading mentors of the twentieth century.

Charles Elton was born March 29, 1900, in Manchester, England. His interest in what he later called "scientific natural history" was sparked early by his older brother Geoffrey. By the age of 19, Charles Elton was already investigating species relationships in ponds, streams, and sand-dune areas around Liverpool.

His formal education in ecology was shaped by an undergraduate education at Oxford University, and by his participation in three scientific expeditions to Spitsbergen in the Arctic (in 1921, 1923, and 1924), the first one as an assistant to Julian Huxley. Even though an undergraduate, he was allowed to begin an ecological survey of animal life in Spitsbergen, a survey completed on the third trip. These experiences and contacts led him to a position as biological consultant to the Hudson's Bay Company, which he used to conduct a long-term study of the fluctuations of furbearing mammals, drawing on company records dating back to 1736.

During this period, Elton became a member of the Oxford University faculty (in 1923), and was eventually elected a senior research fellow of Corpus Christie College. His whole academic career was spent at Oxford, from which he retired in 1967.

He applied the skills and insights gained through the Spitsbergen and Hudson Bay studies to work on the fluctuations of mice and voles in Great Britain. To advance and coordinate this work, he started the Bureau of Animal Populations at Oxford. This institution (and Elton's leadership of it) played a vital role in the shaping of research in animal ecology and in the training and education of numerous ecologists in the early twentieth century.

Elton published a number of books, but four proved to be of particular significance in ecology. He published his first book, Animal Ecology,in 1929, a volume now considered a classic, its author one of the pioneers in the field of ecology, especially animal ecology. In the preface to a 1966 reissue, Elton suggested that the book "must be read as a pioneering attempt to see...the outlines of the subject at a period when our knowledge [of] terrestrial communities was of the roughest, and considerable effort was required to shake off the conventional thinking of an earlier zoology and enter upon a new mental world of populations, inter-relations, movements and communitiesa world [of] direct study of natural processes..." Major topics in that book remain major topics in ecology today: the centrality of trophic relationships; the significance of niche as a functional concept; ecological succession ; the dynamics of dispersal; and the relationships critical to the fluctuation of animal populations, including interactions with habitat and physical environment .

His year of work on small mammals in Spitzbergen, for the Hudson's Bay Company, and in British localities accessible to Oxford, culminated in the publication, in 1942, of Voles, Mice and Lemmings. This work, still in print almost 60 years later, "brought together...his own work and a collection of observations from all over the world and from ancient history onward." Elton begins the book by establishing a context of "vole and mouse plagues" through history. A second section is on population fluctuations in north-west Europe, voles and mice in Britain, but also lemmings in Scandinavia. The other two sections focus on wildlife cycles in northern Labrador, including chapters on fox and marten, voles, foxes, the lemmings again, and caribou herds. In all this work, the emphasis is on the dynamics of change, on the constant interactions and subsequent fluctuations of these various populations and often stringent environments.

Elton's 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, focused on a problem that is of even more concern todaythe arrival and impact of exotic species introduced from other places, sometimes naturally, increasingly through the actions of humans. As always, Elton is careful to set the historical context by showing how biological "invaders" have been moving around the globe for a long time, but he also emphasizes that "we are living in a period of the world's history when the mingling of thousands of kinds of organisms from different parts of the world is setting up terrific dislocations in nature."

The Pattern of Animal Communities, published in 1966, emerged from years of surveying species, populations, communities and habitats in the Wytham Woods not far from Oxford. In this book, his primary intent was to describe and classify the diverse habitats available to terrestrial animals, and most of the chapters of the book are given to specific habitats for specialized kinds of organisms. Though not generally considered a theoretical ecologist, his early thinking did help to shape the field. In this book, late in his career, he summarized that thinking in a chapter titled "The Whole Pattern," in which he presents a set of fifteen "new concepts of the structure of natural systems," which he stated as a "series of propositions," though some reviewers labeled them "principles" of ecology.

Always the pragmatist, Elton devoted considerable time to the practical, applied aspects of ecology. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the work he turned to early in World War II. One of his original purposes in establishing the Bureau of Animal Populations was to better understand the role of disease in the fluctuations of animal numbers. At the beginning of the war, he turned the research focus of the Bureau to the control of rodent pests, especially to help in controlling human disease and to contribute toward the reduction of crop losses to rodents.

Elton was an early conservationist, stating in the preface to his 1927 text that "ecology is a branch of zoology which is perhaps more able to offer immediate practical help to mankind than any of the others [particularly important] in the present rather parous state of civilization." Elton strongly advocated the preservation of biological diversity, and pressed hard for the prevention of extinctions; this is what he emphasizes in his chapter on "The Reasons for Conservation" in the Invasions book. But he also expanded his conception of conservation to mean looking for some "general basis for understanding what it is best to do" and "looking for some wise principle of co-existence between man and nature , even if it has to be a modified kind of man and a modified kind of nature." He even took the unusual step (unusual for professional ecologists in his time and still unusual today) of going into the broadcast booth to popularize the importance of ecology in helping to achieve those goals though environmental management as applied ecology.

Elton's service to ecology as a learned discipline was enormous. In the early twentieth century, ecology was still in its formative years, so Elton's ideas and contributions came at a critical time. He took the infant field of animal ecology to maturity, building it to a status equal that of the more established plant ecology. His research Bureau at Oxford fostered innovative research and survey methods, and provided early intellectual nurture and professional development to ecologists who went on to become major contributors to the field, one example being the American ecologist Eugene Odum. As its first editor, Elton was "in a very real sense the creator" of the Journal of Animal Ecology, serving in the position for almost twenty years. He was one of the founders of the British Ecological Society. Elton's books and ideas continue to influence ecologists today.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Crowcroft, P. Elton's Ecologists: A History of the Bureau of Animal Population. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Elton, C. S. Animal Ecology. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927.

. The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. London: Methuen, 1958.

. The Pattern of Animal Communities. London: Methuen, 1966.

. Voles, Mice and Lemmings: Problems in Population Dynamics. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1942.


Hardy, A. "Charles Elton's Influence in Ecology." The Journal of Animal Ecology 37, no. 1 (February 1968): 18.