Ecology Limnology
Neil Rooney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0053


Limnology is the study of the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of lakes and other bodies of fresh water. It has been a dominant subdiscipline of ecology due to a number of factors. Lakes are easily defined ecological units, as the shoreline serves as a convenient border. Furthermore, lakes contain large populations of small organisms in a relatively easy to sample homogenous water column. Finally, lakes contain freshwater, a valuable natural resource in much of the world, which makes limnology a practical as well as a valuable science.

General Overviews and Textbooks

G. Evelyn Hutchinson (b. 1903 –d. 1991) truly represented the interdisciplinary element that defines limnology, having published papers on phytoplankton, biogeochemistry, paleolimnology, lake classification, energy and nutrient flux, and lake metabolism. His most ambitious contribution (to limnology, for he had many major contributions to other elements of ecology) was his Treatise on Limnology, published in three volumes as Hutchinson 1957, Hutchinson 1967, and Hutchinson 1975. A fourth volume was published after his death, based on notes that he had left behind, as Hutchinson 1993. These volumes are comprehensive yet somewhat daunting in their breadth. While Hutchinson attempted to be comprehensive in his Treatise, Robert G. Wetzel’s Limnology was aimed more at upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level students to introduce them to the subject. Originally published in 1975, it has gone through two subsequent editions, the most recent is Wetzel 2001, which was expanded to include river ecosystems and is a formidable work, weighing in at just over 1,000 pages. Kalff 2002 (Limnology: Inland Water Ecosystems) is a more recent attempt at an upper-year undergraduate or graduate-level textbook. This is a slimmer and more readable volume, with an emphasis on visualization of data and empirical patterns among systems. It also focuses on microbial processes and biogeochemical cycling in lakes, reflecting Kalff’s more ecosystem-based approach to limnology. Finally, the late Stanley Dodson’s Introduction to Limnology (Dodson 2005) is aimed largely at the undergraduate student. It places more of an emphasis on ecological principles, offering chapters on population dynamics, community ecology and ecosystem processes, and landscape connections. This volume stands in nice contrast to Kalff’s ecosystem-based approach.

  • Dodson, Stanley I. 2005. Introduction to limnology. Boston: McGraw Hill.

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    A primer for limnology written as an introductory text for undergraduate students. The focus on ecological principles reflects the more recent merging of ecology and limnology.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1957. A Treatise on limnology. Vol. 1, Geography, physics and chemistry. New York: Wiley.

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    Hutchinson’s first volume of the Treatise focuses on the abiotic variables that influence the structure and function of lakes. At over 1,000 pages, it is a monumental work that explores topics ranging from basin geomorphometry to redox potential and the Iron cycle.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1967. A Treatise on limnology. Vol. 2, Introduction to lake biology and the limnoplankton. New York: Wiley.

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    The second volume of the Treatise takes the reader on the plankton’s journey from marine to freshwater, examines aspects of seasonality in the phytoplankton, and then dedicates itself to examining zooplankton. In this volume, Hutchinson synthesizes and reanalyzes previously published data to give the reader a larger appreciation of the complexities of the plankton.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1975. A Treatise on limnology. Vol. 3, Limnological botany. New York: Wiley.

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    The third volume of Treatise concentrates on a more narrow aspect of lakes compared to the earlier volumes. The volume focuses largely on systematics and evolutionary relationships, distribution, and general ecology of freshwater macrophytes (macro- algae, mosses, and higher vascular plants) and the littoral algae.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1993. A Treatise on limnology. Vol. 4, The zoobenthos. New York: Wiley.

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    The fourth and final volume of the Treatise focuses on the origin of freshwater biota, the various types of zoobenthos, and the richness of the benthos. This volume (published posthumously based on notes) focuses largely on littoral invertebrates and is considered to be an unfinished work.

  • Kalff, Jacob. 2002. Limnology: inland water ecosystems. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    This is a text geared to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students. Kalff focuses on linking biogeochemical cycling to aquatic biota. As an empiricist, Kalff also looks for patterns in nature that result in predictive power. His style is lighter than Wetzel 2001, as he uses compiled data sets to convey a large amount of material in a short period of time.

  • Wetzel, Robert. G. 2001. Limnology: Lake and river ecosystems. 3d ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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    A more exhaustive text compared to Kalff 2002, this work is aimed at upper-level undergraduate and graduate students. Wetzel spends more time exploring the heterotrophic nature of lakes and the structuring role of detritus in lakes. As this is the third edition of the text, the author has had more time to add, revise, and rework the text, resulting in a formidable work.

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