Royal Society Publishing

Charles Sutherland Elton. 29 March 1900 — 1 May

Richard Southwood, J.R. Clarke

Elected F.R.S. 1953


Charles Elton is not simply a towering figure in the history of animal ecology; in many respects he deserves to be called its founding father. His interest in natural history, rooted in childhood, was burnished by experience on Arctic expeditions, and on the basis of these firm personal foundations he wrote Animal ecology (1)*. This book, which he records that he wrote in 1926 in 85 days (Elton, mss†), sets out much of the framework of the subject–at the levels of both the population and the community. He outlined the various factors that could potentially regulate populations, the significance of dispersal and many of the key concepts such as the pyramid of numbers and the composition of food chains. The first phase of his research was concerned with fluctuations, particularly regular ones (cycles), in animal populations; the second was devoted to the study of the community in the shape of Wytham Wood near Oxford. From this he derived other concepts such as the inverse pyramid of habitats and the girder system of communities, although these have not achieved the wide credence of his earlier ideas. His foundation of the Bureau of Animal Population in Oxford and of the Journal of Animal Ecology were truly seminal steps in the organizational development of the subject. Nevertheless, the Bureau remained small, and he preferred the small team to the large department and seldom attended national or international meetings.