Charles Sutherland Elton

Charles Sutherland Elton was born in Manchester England on March 29, 1900. In 1922 he graduated from Oxford, and in 1927 published his most famous book called “Animal Ecology”. He was a bit of an anomaly in his day. The popular research trend of the time was focused heavily on anatomy and embryology. Elton challenged this when he turned his research sights on population biology and how plants and animals interact with one another within their habitats. After world war two Elton became interested in invasion ecology and published his second famous book “ Ecology of invasions by animals and plants” in 1958. This is the work that ignited the sub-discipline within the field of ecology of invasion ecology. In 1937 he found time to marry Edith Joy Scovell and sire 2 children (Crowcroft 1991).  He was active in research and academia until 1967 and he passed away in 1991.


Professional Life: He was a bit of an oddity at the start of his career as he was Interested in animal life histories and ecological connections. Instead of following the popular research trends of anatomy and embryology. He considered himself a naturalist and nature lover so this direction was a natural fit for him. Later in his career Elton became a significant name in ecology with his invasion ecology ideas, his invention of the concept of the food chain, and his research into how niches play into ecosystem dynamics(Simberloff 2012). Later in his life he also was a mover and shaker along with Arthur Tansley in implementing a national British policy on conservation. Elton was by all means a naturalist, and a nature lover. His life's work was spent in discovering how our natural world worked together, all the while attempting to avoid political debate and public advocacy for nature(Macfayden 1992). His feelings about nature were probably stoked after he graduated university and spent 3 one year tours assisting Julian Huxley surveying Arctic Vertebrates. During these three voyages to Spitsbergen he was able to conduct observations of animal life and draw conclusions about their interactions.   It was also here and in a following employment by the Hudson Bay Company that Elton's interest in the interactions of animals with each other and with their environment was piqued. Specifically he worked on the seasonal population fluctuations of fur bearing animals.  

  In 1923 he was given a position on the faculty of Oxford college, where he remained until he retired in 1967.  By 1936 corpus Christi College elected him as a senior research fellow.  

World war 2 offered some unique biological problems.  One of which was the control of rodent pests.  As Elton had research experience with these creatures dating back to his work with the Hudson bay company he assigned his oxford lab to this problem during the war years.  He and his researchers saved Queen and Country significant money and resources in non-spoiled food at a time when resources were scarce. In 1954 he published his findings in a book titled “The control of rats and mice”.

After the war Elton turned his academic interest to how species disperse and enter new habitats. This research sparked a new sub-field of ecology called invasion ecology.  The  1968 book “The Ecology of Invasions of Animals and Plants” summed up 20 years of his research on the topic. This work forwarded Elton's views about how the niche theory determined how a species fits in it's ecosystem. Elton's view that an animals functional attributes determined it's niche was opposed to earlier views that the external environment determined an organism's niche (Schoerner 1989).  This book divided the subject into three parts.  Part number one dove into an explanation of how invading species transport and colonize new locations.  Part two spoke about how invaders become naturalized and the competition between invaders and natives.  The final part introduced ideas about conservation and how maintaining species diversity was beneficial in thwarting biological invasion (Elton, 2000)
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    Elton's contributions to modern ecological thought cannot be ignored. He was a pioneer in ecology and even held the prestigious post of chief editor of "the Journal of Animal Ecology".

Several of his findings form the foundation of modern community and population ecology. His observations and writings brought forth the niche theory, the ecological pyramid theory, and the recognition that animals and plants work in conjunction to form communities in nature. Despite these tremendous advances there has yet to be an official biography of this great pioneer. He had an exceptionally reserved personality and actively shied away from being involved in vocal debate about his work. Other mid 20th century ecologists such as Gleason, Carson, and Diamond were much more vocal and the spotlight was cast upon them and their work. This doesn't diminish Elton's contributions and the fact that without his efforts there would be no field of invasion ecology. My personal favorite!