Charles Sutherland Elton

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Charles Sutherland Elton
Born29 March 1900
Manchester, England
Died1 May 1991 (aged 91)
Oxford, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Alma materOxford University
Known forEltonian niche, food chain
AwardsLinnean Medal (1967)
Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1976)
Darwin Medal (1970)
Scientific career
FieldsAnimal ecology, zoology
InstitutionsOxford University
Doctoral studentsDennis H. Chitty, William W. Murdoch
InfluencesJulian Huxley, Robert Collet, Victor Ernest Shelford, Alexander Carr-Saunders

Charles Sutherland Elton FRS[1] (29 March 1900 – 1 May 1991) was an English zoologist and animal ecologist. His name is associated with the establishment of modern population and community ecology, including studies of invasive organisms.

Personal life[edit]

Charles Sutherland Elton was born in Manchester as son of the literary scholar Oliver Elton and children's writer Letitia Maynard Elton (née MacColl). He had one older brother, Geoffrey Elton.[2] Charles Elton makes a strong point to attribute his interest of scientific natural history to his brother Geoffrey in many of his writings. Geoffrey died at the age of 33. Charles Elton married the British poet Edith Joy Scovell in 1937; they had two children.[3]

Professional life[edit]

Charles Elton was educated at Liverpool College and Oxford University, from which he graduated in zoology in 1922, with a 1st in Field research project, and a 3rd in the exams, and where he subsequently had his entire academic career. Elton's professional goal was 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. In 1921, while still an undergraduate, he was assistant to Julian Huxley on an expedition to Spitsbergen. Here, he made an ecological survey of Arctic vertebrates, a project he continued on three subsequent Arctic expeditions in 1923, 1924, and 1930. His Arctic experience led to a consultancy with the Hudson's Bay Company, 1926–1931, which enabled him to study fluctuations in the populations of animal species of interest to the fur trade. Later, he undertook similar studies on British mouse and vole populations.

Elton's early career was strongly influenced by Alexander Carr-Saunders, Victor Ernest Shelford and Gordon Hewitt. In 1922 Alexander Carr-Saunders wrote The Population Problem: A Study of Human Evolution where he outlines the influence of overpopulation in humans having cascading effects on plant and animal life around the world.[4] Elton later applied these ideas of population fluctuations to animals. Victor Ernest Shelford wrote Animal Communities in Temperate America in 1913, where he outlines three main principles of ecology, (a) emphasising the importance of studying the physiology of the organism, rather than the physiology of a specific organ; (b) evaluating the "phenomena of behavior and physiology" in relation to the natural environments; and (c) relating the ecology of plant life to that of animal life.[5] From Gordon Hewitt's 1921 book The Conservation of the Wildlife of Canada, Elton noticed the Canadian lynx and snowshoe hare population cycles, and developed a greater understanding of population fluctuations in Arctic vertebrates with the Hudson's Bay Company.[6]

In 1932, Elton established the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford, which became a centre for the collection of data on fluctuations in animal populations. In the same year, the Journal of Animal Ecology was founded and Elton became its first editor. In 1936, he was appointed reader in animal ecology at the Oxford University and Corpus Christi College elected him a senior research fellow. During the Second World War 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. After the Second World War, Elton started a 20-year survey of animals and their interrelationships on Oxford University's Wytham estate, including animals in meadows, woods and water. After his retirement, he did some studies in tropical America. He held a great interest in nature conservation and problems in management of nature reserves and he was instrumental in establishing the Nature Conservancy Council in 1949. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953 and received the society's Darwin Medal in 1970.[7]

Intellectual heritage[edit]

In 1927, Elton published his now classic book Animal Ecology. This book outlines the important 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. In later works on the niche theory, Elton's definition – the Eltonian niche – in terms of functional attributes of organisms (or its position in the trophic web), has been viewed by some authors as opposed to Joseph Grinnell's earlier definition emphasising states of the environment suitable for the species. However, others have argued that there are more similarities than dissimilarities between the two versions of the niche concept.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]


  • Animal Ecology, 1st edn 1927, Sidgwick and Jackson, London. Reprinted several times, e.g. 2001 by The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-20639-4. 2nd edn The ecology of animals, 1946, Methuen, London.
  • Voles, mice and lemmings: problems in population dynamics 1st edn 1942. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Reprinted in facsimile 1969 by Wheldon & Wesley Ltd., New York ISBN 9780854860081
  • The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, 1958, Methuen, London. Reprinted 2000 by The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-20638-6.
  • The Pattern of Animal Communities, 1st edn 1966, Methuen, London. 2nd edn 1979, Chapman & Hall, London. ISBN 0-412-21880-1.


  1. ^ Southwood, R.; Clarke, J. R. (1999). "Charles Sutherland Elton. 29 March 1900 -- 1 May: Elected F.R.S. 1953". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 45: 129. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0010.
  2. ^ Crowcroft, P. 1991. Elton's Ecologist: A history of the Bureau of Animal Population. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press.
  3. ^ Article.[dead link]
  4. ^ Carr-Saunders, A.M. 1922. The population problem: a study in human evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  5. ^ Shelford, V.E. 1913. Animal communities in temperate America. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press
  6. ^ Elton, C.S. 1968 reprint. Animal ecology. Great Britain: William Clowes and Sons Ltd.
  7. ^ Chrono-Biographical Sketch: Charles Elton.
  8. ^ Schoener, T. W., 1989. The ecological niche. Pages 79–113 in J. M. Cherrett (ed.), Ecological Concepts. Blackwell Scientific Publ., Oxford.
  9. ^ Davis, M. A., Thompson, K., and Grime, J. P. (2001) Charles S. Elton and the dissociation of invasion ecology from the rest of ecology. Diversity & Distributions, 7:97–102 Full text.
  10. ^ Elton, C.S. 1958. The ecology of invasions by animals and plants. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd.

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