In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Elton

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Bureau of Animal Population—Early Years and World War II
  • Bureau of Animal Population—Later Years and Closure
  • Early Books and the Evolution of Animal Ecology
  • Later Contributions to Animal Ecology
  • British Ecological Society
  • Contributions to Understanding Population Cycles
  • Early Contributions to Invasion Biology
  • Invasions Monograph and Its Influence
  • Contributions to Conservation

Ecology Charles Elton
Daniel Simberloff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0090


Charles Elton (b. 1900–d. 1991) was a towering figure in ecology in general and animal ecology in particular. Although there were antecedents, he was a chief architect of the concept of the pyramid of numbers and one of the inventors of the concepts of the food chain, food web, and ecological niche. He helped found the field of animal ecology. Inspired by the early American animal ecologist Victor Shelford, Elton in 1927 wrote one of the earliest textbooks on animal ecology and one that long influenced the field. He was a leader in documenting the phenomenon of animal population cycles and seeking their causes. Elton is best known today for a 1958 book on the impact of biological invasions that anticipated the growth of modern invasion biology by twenty-five years. He also contributed to the development of conservation biology through his research and publications on invasion impacts and his insistence on the need for ongoing management of nature reserves based on sound ecological data. Despite a well-known congenital aversion to committee work and public advocacy, Elton was a key player, along with Arthur Tansley, in developing and implementing a British national policy on conservation. A one-time president of the British Ecological Society, Elton was founding editor of their Journal of Animal Ecology, a post he held for nineteen years. Despite these varied and important achievements, largely because of his intensely private and unpretentious nature Elton remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, and no one has undertaken his biography. His many writings are characterized by a remarkable degree of erudition and by a dry, understated wit.


Charles Elton’s life is outlined by Macfadyen 1992 and Southwood and Clarke 1999. He was born in Manchester in 1900. His father was a professor of English literature, and Charles grew up in an academic family. His writings, though biological, have ample and apt references to literature, history, and philosophy. Both of his grandfathers were Protestant ministers, as was his father-in-law, yet Elton showed no interest in religion. Charles was close to his oldest brother, Geoffrey, with whom he shared an interest in nature. Geoffrey’s early death (1927) profoundly saddened Elton, and his Bureau of Animal Population, discussed below, was in some sense a monument to his late brother. After an early childless marriage and divorce, Elton married the poet E. Joy Scovell, and they had two children whom he enjoyed greatly. He read eclectically and was a dedicated pianist. Trained as an army signalman toward the end of World War I, Elton never saw wartime service. He was demobilized in 1919 and accepted at Oxford University, where he studied under Julian Huxley. In 1922 Elton was appointed to a junior demonstratorship, beginning his lifelong Oxford career. In 1921–1924 Elton went on three scientific expeditions to Spitzbergen and in 1930 to Lapland. These trips greatly influenced his conceptions of food chains, the pyramid of numbers, and the trophic-based structure of ecological communities, as well as his interest in population cycles and view of nature as a highly dynamic entity. In 1932 Elton established the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford, his academic home until his retirement in 1967. Despite his retiring personality, he proved adept at garnering funding for the Bureau and at assembling a small, highly interactive staff. The Bureau focused largely on the population level, with emphasis on population cycles, until World War II, when Elton directed the entire staff in research to aid the war effort by reducing introduced rodent populations and eliminating their toll on agriculture. After the war Elton led the Bureau in research increasingly focused on the level of the ecological community. Despite his efforts to prevent this, the Bureau was closed upon his retirement in 1967. Elton later maintained records for the survey of the biota of Wytham Woods, a long-term Bureau project, and published six papers, including major contributions on invertebrate communities of tropical rain forest. He received several important awards for his ecological research and conservation contributions before his death in 1991.

  • Macfadyen, Amyan. 1992. Obituary: Charles Sutherland Elton. Journal of Animal Ecology 61:499–502.

    Description of Elton’s scientific approach, development, and ecological contributions and legacy.

  • Southwood, Sir Richard, and John R. Clarke. 1999. Charles Sutherland Elton. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London 45:129–140.

    Portrayal of Elton’s life from his earliest years through his retirement and death, with assessment of various influences on his outlook and career. Southwood was perhaps the successor to Elton as the leading British ecologist and an exponent of a modernized, more quantitative version of the approach developed by Elton.

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