In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Introductory Sources in Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Books
  • Perspectives: Context, Controversy, Tactics, Strategies
  • Biographies
  • Nature Observation
  • Historical Foundations
  • Travelogues
  • Conservation
  • Popular Science

Ecology Introductory Sources in Ecology
Paul A. Keddy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0081


The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning “house,” and refers to the study of the living systems that surround humans, or more generally, our home in what is rather a thin layer of atmosphere and water covering Earth. It has also been called “scientific natural history.” The domain of ecology extends from the study of individual physiologies, through populations, and up to entire ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Overall, one can say that the history of ecology really begins in the 1700s, and that the period of most rapid development was the late 20th century. That is not to say that earlier writers did not refer to nature. Ancient texts mention plants, animals, and natural events such as floods. One could try to make the case that these should be called “ecology.” But there is an important distinction between merely describing a bird or a flood and making conscious efforts to measure and determine causation. Serious and systematic study of wild species is rather recent in human affairs. Many of the first accounts were of species or regions encountered by explorers. From this emerged reports of natural phenomena (which one might call “natural history”) and attempts to systematize such observations and seek cause-and-effect relationships among them (which one might call “ecology”). Within the latter it is probably useful to distinguish between compendia dealing with practical issues (agriculture, hunting, forestry, and fishing) and later work in which the primary goal is understanding and predicting rather than merely maximizing exploitation rates. Overall, natural history and ecology have shared roots, but they differ in emphasis: the former emphasizes the joy of fractal detail, while the latter searches for general, testable principles. For convenience, one can divide the popular and introductory literature on modern ecology into nine categories, here titled General Overviews, Classic Books, Perspectives: Context, Controversy, Tactics, Strategies, Biographies, Nature Observation, Historical Foundations, Travelogues, Conservation, and Popular Science. The order of the final seven is quite arbitrary, as are the categories. A single book like Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (Darwin 1839, cited under Travelogues) or Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wild Life (Hornaday 1913, cited under Conservation) might be assigned to any one of several categories. Finally, everyone reading further here should obtain several guides to the natural history of his or her own ecological region. Finding these regional guides, and reading them, remains essential, even though such accounts are too geographically specific to appear here.

General Overviews

Nothing is more embarrassing at a party, or a comprehensive exam, than finding people are talking about a scholar, or a field of knowledge, about which one is entirely ignorant. Really, one should just know about topics like Darwin’s finches, or Galapagos tortoises, or carnivorous plants, or peat bogs, just as one should know something about Beethoven or Shakespeare. But where you do start in your reading? Certain scholarly books are useful, because they summarize a vast literature for beginning students. Ricklefs and Relyea 2014, for example, offers one current overview of ecology as a whole. Keddy 2017 provides an overview based more upon plants, which, after all, comprise more than 90 percent of all biomass on Earth. Both of these books can be treated as a good summary of work in ecology over the 20th century, a period of intense activity in the field of ecology. If we forget what was done, or ignore it, we end up having to start over. Moreover, a great deal of newer (particularly online) work is simply that—new. This does not mean that it is better than preceding work. Ricklefs and Relyea 2014 and Keddy 2017 also incorporate views from earlier books, several of which still should be read separately, particularly Odum 1971 for energy flow, Harper 1977 for its insights into plant population biology and evolution, and Huston 1994 for its exploration of the causes of biological diversity. One should not forget that all ecological phenomena occur in a geological context (think ice ages; see Delcourt and Delcourt 1991). And the many connections among the physical environment, essential elements, populations, and communities of organisms are explored in treatises on ecosystem ecology, where ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles are two of the central themes for understanding and quantifying nature (Aber and Melillo 2001). The role of ecosystems in providing services to humans is of considerable importance; de Groot 1992 is the place to start. If you are not intending to pursue a professional career in ecology, you might find it easier to begin with the section titled Popular Science. These popular books are necessary for professional ecologists to read, too, but in the case of these individuals they will serve as dessert rather than an appetizer.

  • Aber, John D., and Jerry M. Melillo. 2001. Terrestrial ecosystems. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    A nicely illustrated introduction to ecosystems, nutrient cycles, and the processes that control them.

  • de Groot, Rudolf S. 1992. Functions of nature: Evaluation of nature in environmental planning, management and decision making. Groningen, The Netherlands: Wolters-Noordhoff.

    An impressive compendium of all the benefits humans receive from nature. Note, however, that increasingly, ecologists are using the word “service” rather than “function.”

  • Delcourt, Hazel R., and Paul A. Delcourt. 1991. Quaternary ecology: A paleoecological perspective. London: Chapman and Hall.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-011-3104-9

    The current state of ecosystems and the current distribution of organisms are dependent upon past events such as the recent ice ages, along with associated climate changes elsewhere and changes in sea level. Figure 1.6 is a classic. For even longer time scales, see Levin and King 2017 (cited under Popular Science).

  • Harper, John L. 1977. The population biology of plants. London: Academic Press.

    Still the classic book on how plants appear from the perspective of zoology, that is, as populations of individuals, or even populations of meristems.

  • Huston, Michael A. 1994. Biological diversity: The coexistence of species on changing landscapes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    There are more than 1 million species on Earth. What are the patterns in their abundance, and what causes them? For a greater emphasis on evolution, see Michael L. Rosenzweig, Species Diversity in Space and Time (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  • Keddy, Paul A. 2017. Plant ecology: Origins, processes, consequences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511812989

    Begins with the role of plants in creating the atmosphere, explores causal factors at multiple scales, and ends with conservation challenges. Includes examples from many contemporary plant ecologists, and their work, in a global context. Meet interesting people (Hofmeister, Haber, Raunkiaer) and plants (Rhynia, Amborella, Lithops, Rafflesia).

  • Odum, Eugene. 1971. Fundamentals of ecology. 3d ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

    The first edition, also the first textbook of ecology, appeared in 1953 and had a great impact, although the 1971 edition is frequently regarded as the “classic” version. A fifth edition with Gary Barrett as co-author (2005) includes a thoughtful overview of the scope of ecology (pp. 1–10).

  • Ricklefs, Robert E. and Rick Relyea. 2014. Ecology: The economy of nature. 7th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman.

    There are many ecology texts. This familiar standard, written by two zoologists, is filled with colorful examples. Make sure you understand the three main ecological interactions: competition, predation, and mutualism. A new edition is on its way.

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