History of Ecology


Although there have been ‘ecological’ ideas and investigations over many centuries, the history of ecology as a self‐conscious science started only in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Originating from different roots, especially natural history and physiology, it soon developed into different specialities, such as animal and plant ecology, which at first developed at least partly independently from each other. Nevertheless, already from the first half of the twentieth century on, there have been attempts to arrive at unifying theories, an important culmination of which can be seen in the rise of ecosystems ecology. In the wake of an emerging awareness for environmental problems in the 1960s, ecology also became perceived by a broader public. This led to increasing demands on the science and also changed the work and subjects of ecologists to include much more application‐driven and interdisciplinary research.

Key Concepts:

  • Ecology has always been a hybrid science, building both on natural history and on physiology.

  • The different traditions of ecology have developed partly independently during the first decades of ecology as a ‘self‐conscious ecology’.

  • Only since the 1960s and 1970s ecology became a field also known and valued outside smaller academic circles.

  • Ecology is basically a biological science, must not be confused with ‘environmental thinking’.

Keywords: ecology; natural history; ecological subdisciplines; ecological theory; conservation

Figure 1.

Karl Semper's book “Die natürlichen Existenzbedingungen der Thiere” from 1880 was the first book on the ecology of animals.

Figure 2.

The Danish botanist Eugenius Warming (1841–1924). Source: Wikimedia commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugenius_Warming_1841‐1924.jpg?uselang=de.

Figure 3.

The Maar lakes of the Eifel, here Lake Meerfelder Maar (correction made here 20th January 2011), were one of August Thienemann's classical study objects. They were of fundamental importance for his ideas about the classification of lakes (Copyright © Kurt Jax).



Allee WC, Emerson AE, Park O, Park T and Schmidt KP (1949) Principles of Animal Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Benson KR (2000) The emergence of ecology from natural history. Endeavour 24: 59–62.

Bormann FH and Likens GE (1995) Biogeochemistry of a Forested Ecosystem, 2nd edn. New York: Springer.

Carson R (1962) Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cittadino E (1990) Nature as the Laboratory. Darwinian Plant Ecology in the German Empire, 1880–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Clements FE (1916) Plant Succession. An Analysis of the Development of Vegetation. Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication No. 242.

Clements FE and Shelford VE (1939) Bio‐Ecology. New York: Wiley.

Cowles HC (1899) The ecological relations of the vegetation of the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. Botanical Gazette 27: 95–117, 167–202, 281–308, 361–391.

Dahl F (1921) Grundlagen einer ökologischen Tiergeographie. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Drude O (1896) Deutschlands Pflanzengeographie. Stuttgart: Engelhorn.

Elster H‐J (1974) History of limnology. Mitteilungen der Internationalen Vereinigung für Limnologie 20: 7–30.

Elton C (1927) Animal Ecology. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Elton C (1942) Voles, Mice and Lemmings. Problems in Population Dynamics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Forbes SA (1887) The lake as a microcosm. Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin 15: 537–550.

Forel FA (1892–1904) Le Léman. Monographie limnologique, (vols 1–3). Lausanne: F. Rouge.

Gause GF (1934) The Struggle for Existence. New York: Hafner.

Gleason HA (1917) The structure and development of the plant association. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 44: 463–481.

Gleason HA (1926) The individualistic concept of the plant association. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 53: 7–26.

Golley FB (1993) A history of the ecosystem concept in ecology. More than the sum of its parts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Grisebach A (ed.) (1838) Über den Einfluß des Klimas auf die Begrenzung der natürlichen Floren. In: Gesammelte Abhandlungen und kleinere Schriften zur Pflanzengeographie, pp. 1–29. Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann.

Haeckel E (1866) Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

Harper JL (1977) Population Biology of Plants. London: Academic Press.

Hensen V (1887) Ueber die Bestimmung des Planktons oder des im Meere treibende Materials an Pflanzen und Thieren. Berichte der Kommission zur Wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung der Deutschen Meere 5: 1–109.

Hesse R (1924) Tiergeographie auf ökologischer Grundlage. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Jax K (1998) Holocoen and ecosystem. On the origin and historical consequences of two concepts. Journal of the History of Biology 31(1): 113–142.

Jax K (2010) Ecosystem Functioning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kingsland SE (1995) Modeling Nature. Episodes in the History of Population Ecology, 2nd edn. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Likens GE (1992) The Ecosystem Approach: Its Use and Abuse. Oldendorf/Luhe: Ecology Institute.

Lindeman RL (1942) The trophic‐dynamic aspect of ecology. Ecology 23: 399–417.

Lotka AJ (1925) Elements of Physical Biology. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

MacArthur RH and Wilson EO (1967) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McIntosh RP (1992) Competition: historical perspectives. In: Keller EF and Lloyd EA (eds) Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, pp. 61–67. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meadows D (1972) The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Möbius KA (1877) Die Auster und die Austernwirtschaft. Wiegandt, Berlin: Hempel & Parey.

Park T (1946) Some obervations on the history and scope of population ecology. Ecological Monographs 16: 313–320.

Pearl MC and Reed (1920) On the rate of growth of the population of the United States since 1790 and its mathematical representation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 6: 275–288.

Petersen CGJ (1913) Valuation of the sea. II. The animal communities of the sea‐bottom and their importance for marine zoogeography. Report of the Danish Biological Station to the Board of Agriculture 21: 1–44.

Ramensky LG (1926) Die Gesetzmäßigkeiten im Aufbau der Pflanzendecke. Botanisches Centralblatt N.F. 7: 453–455.

Schwarz AE (2003) Wasserwüste – Mikrokosmos – Ökosystem. Eine Geschichte der “Eroberung” des Wasserraums. Freiburg: Rombach‐Verlag.

Schwarz AE and Jax K (eds) (2010) Ecology Revisited: Reflecting on Concepts, Advancing Science. Dordrecht: Springer.

Semper K (1880) Die natürlichen Existenzbedingungen der Thiere. Leipzig: Brockhaus.

Shelford VE (1913) Animal Communities in Temperate America. Chicago: Geographic Society of Chicago.

Tansley AG (1935) The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology 16: 284–307.

Taylor PJ (1988) Technocratic optimism, H. T. Odum, and the partial transformation of ecological metaphor after World War II. Journal of the History of Biology 21: 213–244.

Thienemann A (1939) Grundzüge einer allgemeinen Ökologie. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 35: 267–285.

Trepl L (1994) Geschichte der Ökologie. Vom 17. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart, 2nd edn. Weinheim, Germany: Beltz‐Athenäum.

Warming E (1895) Plantesamfund. Grundtræk af den økologiske plantegeografi. Kjobenhavn: Philipsen.

Whittaker RH (1962) Classification of natural communities. Botanical Review 28: 1–239.

Further Reading

Botkin DB (1990) Discordant Harmonies. A New Ecology for the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jamison A (2010) Ecology and the environmental movement. In: Schwarz A and Jax K (eds) Ecology Revisited: Reflecting on Concepts, Advancing Science. Dordrecht: Springer.

Kingsland S (2004) Conveying the intellectual challenge of ecology: an historical perspective. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2: 367–374.

McIntosh RP (1985) The Background of Ecology. Concept and Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Simberloff DS (1980) A succession of paradigms in ecology: essentialism to materialism and probabilism. Synthese 43: 3–39.

Worster D (1985) Nature's Economy. A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd edn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Jax, Kurt(Jan 2011) History of Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003084.pub2]