In This Article Robert H. MacArthur

  • Introduction
  • Mentors
  • Robert MacArthur’s Life and Work
  • MacArthur’s Way of Doing Science

Ecology Robert H. MacArthur
Henry S. Horn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0065


In his short life (b. 1930–d. 1972), Robert MacArthur was a highly influential architect of modern ecology. He was, as much as anyone, responsible for bringing theoretical population biology into mainstream ecology at a time when many empirical ecologists were openly hostile to theory. He inquired broadly, read widely, and wrote clearly and concisely. He was an enthusiastic naturalist and an analytical thinker; but more importantly, he mixed these roles, applying his mathematical insights in the field and being inspired by observation in his theoretical work. His PhD thesis became the renowned 1958 Ecology paper on the coexistence of five species of warblers in northeastern coniferous forests. His Warbler Paper is still prominent as a motivating example in introductory ecology texts. MacArthur used graphical analyses to generalize theorems about ecology and genetic evolution. He derived fundamental relations between ecosystem structure and function. He developed a conceptual framework for competition between species, and he applied and tested that framework with field studies of birds. With Edward O. Wilson, he developed the view that an island flora or fauna could be viewed as a potential equilibrium between the arrival of new species and the extirpation of residents. MacArthur’s current citations, copious as they are, vastly underestimate his enduring contribution to contemporary ecology. This is partly because fully one quarter of his publications were books or book chapters, rather than articles in peer-reviewed journals. But it is largely because he encouraged such independence and inspired such confidence in his students, colleagues, and followers that they adopted much of his perspective as their own. They advanced his ideas, and then cited themselves and each other as often as they cited him. Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile to return to his original papers for historical perspective and for prescient ideas that may have been forgotten, as well as for reminders to include evolutionary analysis in ecological theory and for exemplars of the primacy of patterns of natural history in setting and addressing ecological questions. Accordingly, this bibliography will favor references to MacArthur’s own work over his legacy in contemporary literature. After reviewing Mentors, Robert MacArthur’s Life and Work, and MacArthur’s Way of Doing Science, this bibliography will cite and comment on Topical Publications and Commentary. Finally, his first and last books offer Contemplative Bookends to the body of his work, including insights that are still fresh today.


MacArthur’s most direct mentor was his doctoral supervisor, G. Evelyn Hutchinson (for more information on Hutchinson, see Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article G. Evelyn Hutchinson by David Skelly). Accordingly, knowing about Hutchinson enriches one’s knowledge of MacArthur. Slack 2010 provides a detailed biography of Hutchinson that also gives novel insights into MacArthur. Hutchinson 1951, Hutchinson 1957, and Hutchinson 1959 announce specific ideas that MacArthur developed later. Slobodkin 1962 represents a crystallization of theory in population biology that was developing during MacArthur’s graduate student days, in part due to Slobodkin’s own talents for innovation and exposition. There is little public record of MacArthur’s postdoctoral year with David Lack, but Lack 1954 had recently been published, codifying a view of population regulation that MacArthur often expressed. Finally, throughout his career MacArthur cited the genetical theory of Fisher 1930 and the natural history of Grinnell 1943 so often and so admiringly that these biologists may be considered to be his indirect mentors.

  • Fisher, Sir Ronald A. 1930. The genetical theory of natural selection. Edited (1999) with introduction and notes by J. Henry Bennett. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A landmark in population genetics, definitively applying it to questions raised by Darwin. MacArthur was impressed by anyone who also appreciated, let alone understood, Fisher’s work. He generalized several of Fisher’s ideas: the logical structure of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection, and the evolution of optimal sex ratios.

  • Grinnell, Joseph. 1943. Joseph Grinnell’s philosophy of nature: Selected writings of a western naturalist. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Collected excerpts from his major papers, exemplifying patterns that he had planned to gather into a book during retirement. Grinnell was MacArthur’s ideal of a naturalist. The outline of Grinnell’s planned book, Geography and Evolution, lists many topics later elaborated in MacArthur 1972, cited under Geographical Ecology (1972), and MacArthur explicitly cites Grinnell’s early expression of modern ideas.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1951. Copepodology for the ornithologist. Ecology 32.3: 571–577.

    DOI: 10.2307/1931745E-mail Citation »

    A collection of facts about copepods, viewed through contemporary ornithological concepts. Many topics in this paper became recurring themes for MacArthur: selective versus non-selective feeding, size differences among coexisting species, clutch size variation, and fugitive species. The paper ends with a section “Concluding Remarks,” which has become a trope for Hutchinson and his followers.

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1957. Concluding remarks. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 22:415–427.

    DOI: 10.1101/SQB.1957.022.01.039E-mail Citation »

    Formalization of the ecological “niche” and the competitive-exclusion principle, followed by a wealth of examples from natural history. This paper resulted from discussions in A Seminar in Advanced Ecology, made up largely of Hutchinson’s students. The term “fundamental niche” is credited to MacArthur in a footnote (p. 416).

  • Hutchinson, G. Evelyn. 1959. Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals? American Naturalist 93:145–159.

    DOI: 10.1086/282070E-mail Citation »

    Hutchinson’s paper firmly sets food chains (now called “food webs”) and their interactions as the context for questions about the origin and maintenance of biological diversity and about the effects of spatial variations in the environment. This is the context for much of MacArthur’s later work, and Hutchinson generously cites MacArthur, along with others of his students.

  • Lack, David. 1954. The natural regulation of animal numbers. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Lack argues that fluctuations in natural populations are limited by mechanisms that require feedback from population size itself and that are subject to natural selection. He cites copious examples from natural history, especially birds. His ideas heavily influenced the next generation of ecologists.

  • Slack, Nancy G. 2010. G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the invention of modern ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    This is a fascinating account of Hutchinson’s personal and intellectual life, tracing the history of his brilliant idiosyncrasies and their effects on his students and on the field of ecology. In addition, Hutchinson’s correspondence provides important vignettes of his beloved former students, notably material that is not available elsewhere on Robert MacArthur from his student days to his death.

  • Slobodkin, Lawrence B. 1962. Growth and regulation of animal populations. New York: Holt, Rinhardt and Winston.

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    This definitive introduction to the mathematics of populations and their interactions is a concise and transparent summary of much of what was discussed in MacArthur’s student days and early career. Slobodkin made an easy transition from the biology of populations to the energetics of ecosystems and lured later students into the original literature of both arenas.

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