Theoretical Ecology


Theoretical ecology is the study of the fundamental forces and processes determining the course of evolution and how ecological systems are assembled and maintained. Theoretical ecology therefore typically encompasses almost all levels of biological organisation (from genes to ecosystems). Behavioural ecology, life history evolution and demography, population ecology, and the ecology of communities and ecosystems are the typical domains. Theoretical ecology usually, but not always, uses mathematics for modelling and building of theories. Some models of ecological systems are deterministic, that is, assuming that there is no or little environmental variability; others are stochastic and take into account that the environment is (randomly) variable in space and time. Theoretical ecology progresses under the common scientific attitude that we indeed are able to reveal generalities and law‐like behaviours of nature despite the overwhelming diversity of life on Earth.

Key Concepts:

  • Theoretical ecology is simplifying complex problems and using mathematical models to reach general insights.

  • Theoretical ecology has close and natural ties to evolutionary biology.

  • Synthesis and bringing research disciplines together (e.g. behaviour ecology and population dynamics), hallmarks of good theory.

  • Theoretical ecology is an important part of applied ecology, for example, in conservation biology and in fisheries management.

  • Theory and data are naturally inseparable.

Keywords: theory; data; evolution; ecology

Figure 1.

The yield from population harvesting as a function of the parameter h (the harvest rate) in the harvesting model. The yield curve is dome‐shaped with a peak (indicated by arrows) at the optimal harvest rate, i.e. the harvest rate that maximises the yield. The upper curve is a situation with high per capita reproduction in the population; the lower curve is for low per capita reproduction.

Figure 2.

The dynamics of a hypothetical population over time when the population growth rate varies randomly from year to year. Twenty‐five different realisations of the population dynamics over 50 time steps (e.g. years) are shown. All simulations were initiated at a population size of 100 (the horizontal line). For each time step and for each of the 25 examples, the population growth rate R is drawn from a normal distribution with mean equal to 1 and a variance of 10% of the mean.



Ranta E, Lundberg P and Kaitala V (2006) Ecology of Populations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Real LA and Brown JH (eds) (1991) Foundations of Ecology. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Further Reading

Bulmer MG (1994) Theoretical Evolutionary Ecology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Case TJ (2000) An Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Caswell H (2001) Matrix Population Models, 2nd edn. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Ford ED (2000) Scientific Method for Ecological Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hastings A (1997) Population Biology: Concepts and Models. Berlin, Germany: Springer‐Verlag.

Hilborn R and Mangel M (1997) The Ecological Detective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Otto SP and Day T (2007) A Biologist's Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pickett STA, Kolasa J and Jones CG (1994) Ecological Understanding. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Roughgarden J (1998) A Primer of Theoretical Ecology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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How to Cite close
Lundberg, Per(Oct 2014) Theoretical Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003264.pub2]