Charles Sutherland Elton

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.

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
Spouse(s)1. Rose Montague (1928)(divorced). 2. Edith Joy Scovell (1937)
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, Michael Smyth
InfluencesJulian Huxley, Robert Collet, Victor Ernest Shelford, Alexander Carr-Saunders

Personal lifeEdit

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, his first marriage of five years, to Rose Montague, having ended in amicable divorce.[3] Charles and Joy had two children.[4]

Professional lifeEdit

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. It was during his studies at Oxford that he conceptualized his ideas about animal ecology. 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. He also spent some time doing fieldwork in St. Kilda, Scotland. 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 spent many years conducting field research in Wytham Woods, Oxford.

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.[5] 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, (1) emphasising the importance of studying the physiology of the organism, rather than the physiology of a specific organ; (2) evaluating the "phenomena of behavior and physiology" in relation to the natural environments; and (3) relating the ecology of plant life to that of animal life.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

Intellectual heritageEdit

In 1927, Elton published his now classic book Animal Ecology. This outlines the main principles behind 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 his book, he also introduced ideas such as the food cycle, the connection between different parts of the ecosystem, as well as the concept of food pyramid and tropic levels. He also talked about how ecosystems are organized and ordered. This later became the foundation of the ecosystem concept. Elton was the first to discuss the ecological significance of population cycles. He also described how predators had an influence on prey, and so an influence in generating cycles.

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.[9]

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.[10] This book became the basis of the study of biological invasions. It was the first of its kind to warn about the harmful effects and damages invasive species can have on an ecosystem. 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.[11]


  • Animal Ecology, 1st ed., 1927, Sidgwick and Jackson, London. Reprinted several times, e. g. 2001 by The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-20639-4. 2nd ed., The Ecology of Animals, 1946, London: Methuen.
  • Voles, Mice and Lemmings: Problems in population dynamics 1st ed., 1942. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Facsimile reprint, 1969, New York: Wheldon & Wesley Ltd. 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 ed., 1966, London: Methuen. 2nd ed., 1979, London: Chapman & Hall ISBN 0-412-21880-1.


  1. ^ Southwood, R.; Clarke, J. R. (1999). "Charles Sutherland Elton. 29 March 1900 – 1 May 1991: 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. ^ General Registry Office records 1928, 1937
  4. ^ Article.[dead link]
  5. ^ A. M. Carr-Saunders, 1922, The Population Problem: a study in human evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  6. ^ V. E. Shelford, 1913, Animal Communities in Temperate America. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press
  7. ^ C. S. Elton, 1968 reprint. Animal Ecology. Britain: William Clowes and Sons Ltd
  8. ^ Chrono-Biographical Sketch: Charles Elton.
  9. ^ T. W. Schoener, 1989, "The Ecological Niche", pp. 79–113, J. M. Cherrett, ed., Ecological Concepts, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  10. ^ M. A. Davis, K. Thompson and J. P. Grime (2001) "Charles S. Elton and the dissociation of invasion ecology from the rest of ecology". Diversity & Distributions, 7:97–102 Full text.
  11. ^ C. S. Elton, 1958, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, London: Methuen and Co. Ltd.

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