Ecology Victor Shelford
Sara Tjossem
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0145


Victor Ernest Shelford (b. 1877–d. 1968) was instrumental in the establishment and development of ecology as a new experimental science at the turn of the 20th century. Ecology drew on the more established fields of zoology and botany to examine the distribution and abundance of organisms and their adaptations to a fluctuating natural world. Shelford was a pioneer animal ecologist interested in biomes and communities and how they form through ecological succession. His scientific breadth spanned terrestrial and aquatic systems, and as he sought synthesis between animal and plant ecology he developed new approaches and new techniques in both laboratory and field studies. He created one of the first courses in physiological ecology in the United States and collaborated on developing laboratory equipment such as photoelectric cells for measuring light penetration in water. He was known for his transcontinental field trips to teach students about the ecology of different habitats. His research outlook and his scientific field trips inspired many others who went on to become well known for their ecological work, including British ecologist Charles Elton (see Oxford Bibliographies article Charles Elton), and students S. Charles Kendeigh, Robert Whittaker (see Oxford Bibliographies article Robert Whittaker), and Eugene P. Odum. Shelford served as first president of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), chaired its Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions from 1917–1938 (whose motto was “An undisturbed area in every national park and public forest”) and was a driving force behind the creation of the premier nonprofit conservation organization The Nature Conservancy in 1951. He was a fierce defender of both conservation and efficient resource management, and he published widely on those topics, including in the ESA flagship journal Ecology (formerly Plant World).


Croker 1991 is a biography of Shelford and the only comprehensive treatment of his life, drawing in part upon interviews and archival sources at the University of Illinois Archives. Shelford, born in New York State, earned his S. B. (1903) and PhD (1907) in zoology from University of Chicago, where he was taught by physiologist Charles Manning Child, Charles Davenport, Charles O. Whitman, and early plant ecologist Henry C. Cowles. Shelford worked on tiger beetles but quickly expanded his studies to other organisms and researched physiological explanations for differential distribution in dune environments. His 1913 Animal Communities in Temperate America monograph was foundational for animal ecological studies and teaching. From 1914 until his retirement in 1946 he taught and carried out research at the University of Illinois. The same year he also took charge of the Illinois Natural History Survey (1914–1929) and of marine ecology during summers at the Puget Sound Biological Station in Washington State. Throughout his life he conducted field trips across the continent. At the end of his life he was honored with the 1968 Eminent Ecologist award from the ESA (Kendeigh 1968). He held true to the opening sentence in the first of a series of articles in the Biological Bulletin (Shelford 1911a and Shelford 1911b) on ecological succession in which he proclaimed, “The writer is interested primarily in experimental work.” This commitment derived not only from Shelford’s mentor Cowles and colleague Frederic Clements but also from fellow graduate student Charles C. Adams, who wrote Guide to the Study of Animal Ecology (Adams 1913), which Shelford himself used. His commitment was upended, however, by his summers in Puget Sound where according to Benson 1992 he returned to descriptive work after being unable to apply his earlier techniques to the intertidal. Many of Shelford’s early laboratory experiments were on the response of organisms to environmental gradients such as pollutants, while his many extensive field trips allowed him to study and survey the distribution of both animals and plants in their natural habitats. Though his early training was as a zoologist, he said of himself that he was “able to examine the work of plant ecologists with a large degree of sympathy. . .” and he collaborated with botanist Frederic Clements (see the Oxford Bibliographies article The Community Concept) on a novel synthesis of animal, plant, and aquatic ecology (Clements and Shelford 1939) that promoted biomes as the community on land and in the sea. Although much of Shelford’s work was terrestrial, he also published on stream and benthic communities, as well as on Mississippi floodplains, often with an eye toward the impact on economics, whether of codling moths or chinch bugs.

  • Adams, Charles C. 1913. Guide to the study of animal ecology. New York: Macmillan.

    A classic pioneering how-to manual and bibliography for students in ecology. Emphasizes the importance of the scientific method, ecological surveys, collection of specimens, and the dynamic links between landscapes and their communities.

  • Benson, Keith R. 1992. Experimental ecology on the Pacific Coast: Victor Shelford and his search for appropriate methods. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 14.1: 73–91.

    DOI: 10.2307/23331615

    Describes Shelford’s thwarted efforts to apply novel techniques of physiological ecology developed in the Midwest to the study of marine organisms in the Pacific intertidal. Argues that Shelford was forced to step back from experimental studies toward descriptive ones.

  • Clements, Frederic E., and Victor E. Shelford. 1939. Bio-ecology. New York: John Wiley.

    The product of a challenging collaboration between Clements (plant ecology) and Shelford (animal ecology) inspired by Clements’s books Plant Succession (1916) and Plant Indicators (1920). Their effort to synthesize plant and animal ecology applied Clements’s classification system to animal communities and is a thorough description of the biome concept. (See also Oxford Bibliographies article The Community Concept).

  • Croker, Robert A. 1991. Pioneer ecologist: The life and work of Victor Ernest Shelford, 1877–1968. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    This biography presents Shelford’s personal and professional life and includes his early years at the University of Chicago, his research on physiological ecology, anecdotes about his teaching, and achievements in natural area conservation. It details Henry Cowles’s influence but is otherwise light on the conceptual issues driving Shelford’s work.

  • Kendeigh, Charles S. 1968. Victor Ernest Shelford, eminent ecologist, 1968. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 49:97–100.

    DOI: 10.2307/20165761

    A biographical reflection on Shelford’s life and accomplishments on the occasion of Shelford’s being named the ESA “eminent ecologist” for 1968.

  • Shelford, Victor E. 1911a. Ecological succession. I. Stream fishes and the method of physiographic analysis. Biological Bulletin 21:9–35.

    DOI: 10.2307/1535983

    First of a series of papers on applying principles of physiography to succession among fish in streams and ponds.

  • Shelford, Victor E. 1911b. Ecological succession: II. Pond fishes. Biological Bulletin 21:127–151.

    DOI: 10.2307/1535882

    A pioneering and classic study of succession in a series of ponds at the southern end of Lake Michigan in which species of fish are related to the age of the ponds, and ponds of different ages represent historical stages of older ponds. Thus, one can infer the pattern of the succession of fish communities in older ponds.

  • Shelford, Victor E. 1913. Animal communities in temperate America, as illustrated in the Chicago region: A study in animal ecology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.34437

    A landmark animal ecology monograph that inspired the development of animal ecology in North America. It draws upon both observation and experimentation to describe animals, their relation to various environments, and the role of physiological ecology. Ecologists must combine “naturalistic observation and controlled experiments” for progress.

  • University of Illinois Archives Victor E. Shelford Papers 1896–1965.

    Correspondence, reports, and articles reflecting his wide-ranging scientific interests spanning plant, animal, and aquatic ecology. Includes early records of the workings of the Ecological Society of America and the rationale to preserve natural areas. Also includes reprints of Shelford’s articles and those of his students’ to 1946. The biography Croker 1991 drew heavily upon these papers.

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