Introductory Sources for Ecology

(This is adapted from the published version at Oxford Bibliographies Online and provided as a service to readers who do not have privileges at a university library.)

A Guide and Annotated Reading List


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. Indeed, 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, Biographies, Nature Observation, Historical Foundations, Travelogues, Resource Exploitation, and Popular Science. The order of the final seven is quite arbitrary, as are the categories themselves. A single book like Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle or Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wild Lifemight 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.


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

Suggested citation

Keddy, Paul A. 2012. Introductory Sources for Ecology. Viewed online at, date. Adapted from: Introductory Sources, Oxford Bibliographies Online: Ecology. Ed. David Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press.

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? There are certain scholarly books that are useful, because they summarize a vast literature for beginning students. Ricklefs 2001, for example, provides a current overview of ecology from the perspective of a zoologist, while Keddy 2007 provides one based more upon plants. The 20th century was a period of vast scientific activity. If we forget what was done, or ignore it, we end up having to start over. Moreover, a lot of newer (particularly online) work is simply that—new. This does not mean that it is better than preceding work, and often it is not, particularly when the authors have not made the effort to read the earlier works that give their own discoveries context. Ricklefs 2001 and Keddy 2007 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 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 1977). And the many connections among the physical environment, essential elements, populations, and communities of organisms is explored in treatises on ecosystem ecology, where ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles are two of the central themes for understanding and quantifying nature (Aber and Mellilo 1991). 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 that case they will serve as dessert rather than appetizer.

Aber, John D., and Jerry M. Melillo. 2001. Terrestrial ecosystems. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. [ISBN: 9780120417551]

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. Amsterdam: Wolters- Noordhoff. [ISBN: 9789001355944]

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. [ISBN: 9780412297809]

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 1984 (cited under Popular Science).

Harper, John L. 1977. The population biology of plants. London: Academic Press. [ISBN: 9780123258502]

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. [ISBN: 9780521360937]

There are over a 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 Univ. Press, 1995).

Keddy, Paul A. 2007. Plants and vegetation: Origins, processes, consequences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780521864800]

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. [ISBN: 9780721669410]

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. 2001. The economy of nature. 5th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman. [ISBN: 9780716738831]

There are many ecology texts. This familiar standard, written by a zoologist, is filled with colorful examples. Make sure you understand the three main ecological interactions: competition, predation, and mutualism.

Classic Books

This section includes important scientific books that were written for a well-informed audience and remain accessible to modern readers. In these books, one is reading science, rather than reading about science. Two early examples properly belong to history and so are not cited as suggested reading, yet The Elements of Chemistry, written by Lavoisier in 1789, still has entertaining accounts about the attempts to determine the composition of the atmosphere, particularly the elements now named oxygen and nitrogen, thereby laying early foundations for the study of global warming. Similarly, in Cosmos,vonHumboldt set out in 1845 to sketch an overview of human scientific knowledge, although only a few sections (e.g., “Universality of animal life,” “Geography of plants”) address ecology. A generation later, there is Darwin’s famous The Origin of Species,which you have no doubt read, and to give credit where it is due, consider a matching selection of readings from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was, as is too often forgotten, a co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection (see Camerini 2002, cited under Travelogues). This early work made it possible for Vernadsky 1929, which presents an early attempt to systematize and understand what we now term “global biogeochemical cycles.” The modern era of population and community ecology could be said to have started with Elton 1927 and Williams 1964. The foundational works on geographical distribution are Darlington 1957 for the Earth’s fauna, and Takhtajan 1986 for Earth’s flora. These provided the foundation for the modern conception of ecoregions described in Olson, et al. 2001 (cited under Nature Observation). MacArthur 1972 began with a traditional description of climates on a rotating Earth, which would have been familiar to Humboldt or Darwin, and then leapt forward into models for biological phenomena such as competition and resource partitioning. It also led to a greater emphasis upon mathematical tools, as illustrated by Pielou 1977 (and also May and McLean 2007, cited under Perspectives). Begon and Mortimer 1996 illustrates this transition in the field of population biology, emphasizing the common principles that affect the growth and decline of populations of all living creatures. Such books inspired a generation of ecologists to explore mathematical models, hypothetico-deductive methods, and large field experiments. The current phase of modern ecology could be regarded as work in progress, with the works cited under General Overviews as status reports along the path.

Begon, Michael, and Martin Mortimer. 1996. Population ecology: A unified study of animals and plants. 3d ed. Oxford: Blackwell. [ISBN: 9780632034789]

An overview of how populations grow and decline. Rather mathematical for a beginner, but well illustrated with graphs. Necessary knowledge for an era of expanding human populations and endangered wildlife. A good guide to exponential and logistic models for population growth.

Darlington, Philip J. 1957. Zoogeography: The geographical distribution of animals. New York: Wiley.

A treatise on the geographical distribution of animals, including both an account of the patterns and the principles that seem to produce them. This is still a work worthy of study as a foundation for later insights on continental drift and molecular systematics.

Elton, Charles S. 1927. Animal ecology. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

A book written for students and professors that is still a delightful account of the fundamental principles of animal ecology for non-specialists.

MacArthur, Robert H. 1972. Geographical ecology. New York: Harper & Row. [ISBN: 9780060441524]

This book begins with global climate and species distributions. It then moves on to include lucid descriptions of the Lotka-Volterra competition model and resource partitioning. MacArthur also coauthored (with Edward O. Wilson) The theory of island biogeography. For MacArthur’s broader impact on ecology, see chapter 8 of Kingsland 1995 (cited under Historical Foundations).

Pielou, Evelyn C. 1977. Mathematical ecology. New York: Wiley. [ISBN: 9780471019930]

Mathematical methods are useful tools, but are not a substitute, as a few seem to think, for experience with real organisms. Not a gentle introduction—but true to the author’s style. For a complementary book that emphasizes experimentation, see Roger Mead, The design of experiments (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).

Takhtajan, Armen. 1986. Floristic regions of the world. Translated by T. J. Crovello. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. [ISBN: 9780520040274]

This book recognizes thirty-five floristic regions, and thus pairs with Darlington 1957’s zoological perspective. The world map is inserted as a folded Figure 32. A little dated, but still a foundation for more contemporary work on world ecoregions, such as Olson, et al. 2001 (cited under Nature Observation).

Vernadsky, Vladimir. 1929. La biosphère. Paris: Felix Alcan.

The most accessible English version is translated from the French and Russian, including a new foreword, introduction, and appendices: The biosphere (New York: Springer, 1998).

Williams, Carrington B. 1964. Patterns in the balance of nature (and related problems in quantitative ecology. London: Academic Press.

Some species are abundant, and some are uncommon. This early work summarizes information on how species differ in abundance, ranging from the lognormal distribution to species/area relationships.

Perspectives: Context, Controversy, Tactics, Strategies

Nature is complex. More than a million species interact with neighbors, not to mention physical factors. How can scientists find, measure, and evaluate general patterns? This question generates a good deal of lively discussion. Sometimes a scientific discipline (like a three-dimensional object) is best seen with a light shining from one side. Each of the following studies thoughtfully illuminates the way ecological research is conducted. For example, ever since Odum 1971 (cited under General Overviews), energy flow has been a fundamental concept, leading to multiple studies of energy budgets. But White 1993 proposes that in fact the natural world is a nitrogen-based economy. What then? Rigler and Peters were limnologists, and frustrated by the expenditure of resources on detailed mechanistic studies that seemed to provide little insight into general principles of pollution and environmental recovery. Science, they say, is not measured by how satisfied scientists feel, but rather in the success of their (testable) predictions. Rigler and Peters 1995 opens the door to wider reading on pragmatism. A contrasting book, May and McLean 2007, surveys the many potential uses of theoretical models in ecology. Community ecology tries to explain and predict changes in the composition of ecological communities, be they forests or coral reefs. A lack of general principles and central structure allows haphazard studies to masquerade as community ecology—hence the proposals in Ecological Assembly Rules (Weiher and Keddy 1999)for a general structure using traits and filters. Predators are one potential filter. The role of predators has been controversial in ecology for decades, but the issue has been reenergized by the realization that entire ecosystems could be controlled from the bottom up (by plants, energy flow, and nutrients) or from the top down (by predators). This has enormous implications for everything from oceanic fisheries to mountain forests. Which is it? How to decide? And what about the impending global impacts from the decline or even extinction of predators like sharks and large cats? As an introduction, Silliman, et al. 2009 explores human disruption of coastal food webs. Aside from cats and sharks (or crabs and alligators), many species are much smaller and hidden away in soil, but a potent source of bottom-up effects (Wardle 2002). Wright, et al. 2004 illustrates the sort of general patterns that ecologists seek at the global scale, while Shipley 2000 invites readers to consider sources of evidence and the meaning of causation in ecology altogether.

May, Robert M., and Angela R. McLean, eds. 2007. Theoretical ecology: Principles and applications. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780199209989]

Theoretical models can clarify thinking about many natural phenomena. This book includes general principles (such as population growth and predator-prey interactions), as well as applications (such as infectious diseases and fisheries). There are two earlier versions edited by May alone.

Rigler, Frank H., and Robert H. Peters. 1995. Science and limnology. Oldendorf-Luhe, Germany: Ecology Institute.

This is a book for ecologists, not just limnologists. Since “the search for mechanism” still is invoked as dogma and/or mantra, it may be time to reread this book. Then consult William James on pragmatism, perhaps Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1922), available online here.

Shipley, Bill. 2000. Cause and correlation in biology: A user’s guide to path analysis, structural equations and causal inference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780521791533]

Scientists are carefully trained to distinguish between mere correlation, and cause and effect. But in the search for large-scale patterns, where experiments may not be possible, ideas about causation may need to be reevaluated.

Silliman, Brian R., Edwin D. Grosholz, and Mark D. Bertness, eds. 2009. Human impacts on salt marshes: A global perspective. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. [ISBN: 9780520258921]

Are ecological communities driven from the bottom up (by plants determining food webs) or from the top down (by predators controlling herbivores and hence plants)? Although this book has “salt marshes” in the title, it introduces the general concepts and leads to other examples.

Wardle, David A. 2002. Communities and ecosystems: Linking the aboveground and belowground components. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780691074863]

The study of soil provides potential for both understating patterns in communities, and for wisely managing the Earth’s food supplies. It also brings into prominence the fifth kingdom of life, fungi, which are too often relegated to the shadows.

Weiher, Evan, and Paul Keddy, eds. 1999. Ecological assembly rules: Perspectives, advances, retreats. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780521652353]

Does community ecology have a central structure? Gotelli (Science 286 (1999): 1684–1685) says the first chapter’s “profanity, sexual innuendo, and discussion of the merits of human masturbation are bizarre, to say the least, and are an embarrassment to the discipline.” Be warned.

White, Thomas C. R. 1993. The inadequate environment: Nitrogen and the abundance of animals. Berlin: Springer. [ISBN: 9780387568287]

Most ecologists are trained to think of energy (or calories) as the currency in the economy of nature. What if it is in fact nitrogen? White’s overview is reinforced by newer data from both plants and animals.

Wright, Ian J., Peter B. Reich, Mark Westoby, David D. Ackerly, Zdravko Baruch, Frans Bongers, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Terry Chapin, Johannes H. C. Cornelissen, Matthias Diemer, Jaume Flexas, Eric Garnier, Philip K. Groom, Javier Gulias, Kouki Hikosaka, Byron B. Lamont, Tali Lee, William Lee, Christopher Lusk, Jeremy J. Midgley, Marie-Laure Navas, Ülo Niinemets, Jacek Oleksyn, Noriyuki Osada, Hendrik Poorter, Pieter Poot, Lynda Prior, Vladimir I. Pyankov, Catherine Roumet, Sean C. Thomas, Mark G. Tjoelker, Erik J. Veneklaas, and Rafael Villar. 2004. The worldwide leaf economics spectrum. Nature 428:821–827.

Leaves capture sunlight. Most of the world’s organisms therefore depend in one way or another upon leaves. This enormous study of leaf architecture (2,548 species from 219 families at 175 sites) is a model for future studies of traits in particular and general patterns overall.


Another way to round out the knowledge of basic ecology is to learn something about the scientists themselves. Their scientific contributions are mixed with the life circumstances that produced them. Most prominent scientists have at least one such biography. Indeed, for Darwin, there is a small industry of books about the man and his ideas. Here are a few selections from a vast realm. If one chooses almost any well-known ecologist, a librarian or search engine is likely to be able to suggest more books. This selection begins with an early marine biologist (Forbes, in Egerton 2010) and two early botanists (the Bartrams, in Earnest 1940), along with one outlier—an artist and naturalist who surely belongs somewhere among these luminaries (Audubon, in Chancellor 1978). For general biographies of three key personages, von Humboldt is described in Kellner 1963, Darwin in Browne 1995, and Wallace in Raby 2001. As but one example of the drama in their lives, consider this story about Wallace. Wallace was not born a gentleman, and had to fund his explorations by selling specimens. While returning to England from exhausting years exploring the Amazon, on 6 August 1852, his ship, the Helen, caught fire and took nearly all his specimens into the sea. He escaped with little more than his drawings of fish and palms. This is but one of the remarkable events in his life. Where possible, one should read several biographies about any one person to achieve as much balance as is possible for understanding the context of a scientific career. For example, in addition to Kellner 1963’s account of von Humboldt, one could also read Helferich 2004, a vivid account of his own attempt to retrace von Humboldt’s travels in North America.

Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York: Knopf. [ISBN: 9780394579429]

There are many, many books about Darwin. This one is a very readable story that extends from his early days of collecting to his later years of chronic illness and seclusion.

Chancellor, John. 1978. Audubon: A biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. [ISBN: 9780297775294]

Audubon was not a scientist, but his writing and his paintings have inspired many people to scientific endeavors. Moreover, he recorded species now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet.

Earnest, Ernest P. 1940. John and William Bartram, botanists and explorers 1699–1777, 1739–1823. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Imagine traveling through eastern North America before it was the land of strip malls and parking lots.

Egerton, Frank N. 2010. History of the ecological sciences, part 35: The beginnings of British marine biology: Edward Forbes and Philip Gosse. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America91: 176–201.

Edward Forbes helped lay the foundations of marine biology. His accounts of the biota recovered from dredges allowed him to divide the British coast into four depth zones. Such investigations encouraged the HMS Challenger’s epic voyage of oceanic discovery (1872–1876), revealing the abundance of life at greater depths.

Helferich, Gerard. 2004. Humboldt’s cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American journey that changed the way we see the world. New York: Gotham. [ISBN: 9781592400522]

“At the dawn of the nineteenth century Alexander von Humboldt began a five-year 6,000-mile odyssey through Latin America” and the author takes us along for a delightful tour, enlivened by accounts from von Humboldt’s own notes.

Kellner, Lotte. 1963. Alexander von Humboldt. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

Von Humboldt was a scholar, adventurer, and writer who was famous in the 1800s. He not only explored the Andes, he wrote a book on the political economy of Mexico, and, when he finally returned to Europe, he began his series entitled Cosmos, mentioned under Classic Books.

Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: A life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780691006956]

The co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection wrote his essay while lying ridden with malaria in a hammock in Southeast Asia. To read some of his own work, see Camerini 2002 under Travelogues.

Nature Observation

Recall that ecology is the organized study of nature, where observations lead to hypotheses that lead to predictions. Such predictions are then tested by more observations, or, better still, by experiments. This entire logical structure sits on the precise and well-informed observation of wild nature. One could criticize some contemporary studies for the absence of this informed observation, and hence, for an inability to distinguish between important and trivial predictions. In the postmodern era there is a tendency to deify the computer, instead of honoring patient hours in the field. Moreover, the office is warm and dry and safe; one risks neither malaria nor Lyme disease. But von Humboldt and Wallace and Darwin and many later luminaries were all keen observers of nature. They spent many hours in uncomfortable, sometimes life-threatening, wild places. There are many, many books of nature observation, with varying amounts of scientific content, which provide entertainment, illustrate thoughtful attention to detail, and even hint at enlightenment. These could range from A Sand County Almanac (Leopold 1949) to The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Holden 1977). A leading global example is the compendium Life on Earth (Attenborough 1979). The collection subtitled Timeless readings in natural history covers eight centuries of nature observation (Graham, et al. 2011). Many travel books also contain snippets of natural history, ranging from mere descriptions of landscape to accurate guides to ecological characteristics of a region. Such books can be found in nearly every store with a natural history section. More technical books combine natural history and science into regional summaries; a local (more historical) example is Tansley 1939, a description of the British Isles, while a global (more contemporary) example is Archibold 1995, a magisterial synthesis of world vegetation types. The most recent classification of wild nature recognizes 867 ecoregions, nested within fourteen biomes and eight biogeographic realms (Olson, et al. 2001). One could argue that all persons interested in ecology should first learn which ecoregion they inhabit, along with the dominant plant and animal species of that region, and the principal ecological communities, along with the key factors that influence them. Local natural history societies and local nature guides provide an important supplement. Lacking such a grounding in vivid personal experience, it is likely that one will remain unaware of one’s own surroundings, and it is possible that further scholarly activity will remain theoretical and lifeless.

Archibold, O. William. 1995. Ecology of world vegetation. London: Chapman and Hall. [ISBN: 9780412442902]

Since all animal species, and humans, depend upon vegetation, it is necessary that we all understand a little about basic world vegetation types. This book is beautifully illustrated; hence, one can skip the technical parts and still learn the basics of ecology, from physiology to geography, from a plant perspective.

Attenborough, David. 1979. Life on earth: A natural history. London: Collins/BBC Books. [ISBN: 9780002190916]

The book with the red-eyed Panamanian tree frog on the cover has become iconic. There is a well-loved film series on the same topic, under the same name, with thirteen episodes (BBC, 1979). A follow-up series is called The Living Planet (BBC, 1984).

Graham, Michael H., Joan Parker, and Paul K. Dayton. The essential naturalist: Timeless readings in natural history. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. [ISBN: 9780226305691]

Dampier, von Humboldt, Darwin, Elton, Carson. Salamanders, wombats, electric eels, seaweeds, orchids. Attention, observation, description, inference, and hypothesis. There is much to learn here about naturalists and ecologists, about wild creatures and wild places, and about careful observation and writing.

Holden, Edith B. 1977. The country diary of an Edwardian lady. London: Michael Joseph. [ISBN: 9780030210266]

Based upon a posthumous publication of Nature notes for 1906, this book illustrates how a non-specialist can appreciate natural history, as well as ecology and its principles, through careful observation of the natural world around her.

Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A SandCounty almanac. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

Begins “There are some who can live with wild things, and some who cannot.” An outstanding introduction to nature and ecological principles from the perspective of one human living on a farm in Wisconsin and caring for a forest. A model of lucid writing. Last chapter, The Land Ethic.

Olson, David M., Eric Dinerstein, Eric D. Wikramanayake, et al. 2001. Terrestrial ecoregions of the world: A new map of life on Earth. Bioscience 51:933–938.

This article is the foundation for global conservation—and for personal travel. Ecoregions are “relatively large units of land containing a distinct assemblage of natural communities and species, with boundaries that approximate the original extent of natural communities prior to major land-use change” (p. 933).

Tansley, Arthur G. 1939. The BritishIslands and their vegetation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

A book about the British Isles, it is true, and dated, but still insightful and too often overlooked. A useful model for all who aspire to write about their own county, state, province, or nation.

Historical Foundations

Although ecology is a young science, it has a history. Too many histories of science focus on physics and chemistry, or medicine and molecular biology. Indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica (1991, Vol. 14, “Ecology,” pp. 959–961), begins “Long unfamiliar to the public, and relegated to a second-class status by many in the world of science, ecology emerged in the late 20th century as one of the most popular and most important aspects of biology.”Ecology, one still has to tell students, is a distinct and worthy scientific field, just like chemistry and physics, but somewhat younger.Ecology, the science, is also frequently and unfortunately confused with environmentalism, the cause. The distinction is important; they are complementary, but they are not the same. A comprehensive history of ecology isprovided by McIntosh 1985, while Sheail 1987 offers a British perspective. A more expansive version can be found in the delightful series of illustrated essays Egerton 2001–2011. A list of books in the history of ecology, with emphasis upon plants, is provided in Keddy 2005 (but add Odum 1971, cited under General Overviews). There are many compendia of published scientific papers that could be consulted; Real and Brown 1991 remains a favorite of many Americans. Textbooks too can shape the thinking of entire generations—but may inculcate hidden attitudes. According to one historian (Hagen 2008), Odum 1971 (cited under General Overviews) was the first real textbook on ecology, and later generations of textbooks reveal attitudinal changes. “Ironically, as environmentalism gained increasing public support during the 1970s, many ecologists turned away from teaching environmental issues” (Hagen 2008, p. 704). Models have their own history. Kingsland 1995 recounts how attempts to model populations produced greater mathematical sophistication in ecology, starting with the powerful yet controversial model of exponential population growth. Models are a vital part of science, but there are many challenges involved in building models with realistic assumptions, with measurable terms, and with testable predictions (see, for example, Shipley 2000, cited under Perspectives). Without strict criteria, untested (or untestable) models proliferate, consuming time, journal space and resources; meanwhile, species disappear and landscapes are ravaged. Kingsland also illustrates how, lacking such criteria, political intrigues can affect model selection. Such background illuminates Levin, et al. 2009, which offers perspectives on many topics in ecology under seven subtitles, from “Autecology” to “Managing the Biosphere,” with an appendix titled “Milestones in Ecology.”

Egerton, Frank N. 2001–2011. A history of the ecological sciences.

A series of essays in the Ecological Society of America Bulletin. Forty essays that begin with the Greeks, such as Aristotle and Theophrastos, and end with early naturalists in North America, spanning Captain Cook and Henry David Thoreau. These are available online, often accompanied by beautiful lithographs and full-color prints. Highly recommended. One hopes that a book will follow.

Hagen, Joel. 2008. Teaching ecology during the environmental age, 1965–1980. Environmental History 13:704–723.

A review of basic text books in ecology, starting with Odum 1971 (cited under General Overviews), might suggest that recent students have been subtly encouraged to see themselves as isolated scholars studying evolution rather than involved professionals addressing natural resources management in society at large.

Keddy, Paul A. 2005. Milestones in ecological thought: A canon for plant ecology (Invited perspective). Journal of Vegetation Science 16:145–150.

Key readings in different realms of ecology, with a particular emphasis upon plants—plants, after all, comprise a majority of the biomass upon the surface of Earth. The article also illustrates, with examples, several contemporary writers who ignore past scholarship, and the confusion that results.

Kingsland, Sharon E. 1995. Modeling nature: Episodes in the history of population ecology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. [ISBN: 9780226437286]

Darwin himself noted that “a single pair of elephants would have at least fifteen million descendants after five centuries” (p. 9). Exponential growth is the start of the story. Meet Lotka, Pearl, Volterra, Hutchinson, MacArthur and other key figures who contributed to human understanding of population biology and ecological models.

Levin, Simon A., Stephen R. Carpenter, H, Charles J. Godfray, Ann P. Kinzig, Michael Loreau, Jonathan B. Losos, Brian Walker, and David S. Wilcove. 2009. The Princeton guide to ecology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780691128399]

An early chapter on the niche concept illustrates autecology. Later chapters on ecological services extend de Groot 1992 (cited under General Overviews). But these 850 pages omit historical figures, exclude many contemporary scholars, and offer only token mention of, among others, Peters, Grime, and Huston. (Peters is referenced in this bibliography under Perspectives, Huston under General Overviews, and Grime appears in the Oxford Bibliographies Online article on Competition in Plant Communities [obo-9780199830060-0009] or Competition Readings.)

McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. The background of ecology: Concept and theory. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780521249355]

Still the standard reference work on the history of ecology, and the best hard copy for carrying in one’s knapsack or keeping on a bedside table.

Real, Leslie A., and James H. Brown. 1991. Foundations of ecology: Classic papers with commentaries. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. [ISBN: 9780226705934]

Forty classic papers that have laid the foundations of modern ecology, under one convenient cover. A list which challenges each reader to add a few personal favorites.

Sheail, John. 1987. Seventy-five years in ecology: The British Ecological Society. Oxford: Blackwell. [ISBN: 9780632019175]

Begins with vegetation mapping, and moves to animal ecology, ecosystems, conservation, and the building of the British Ecological Society.


Many early explorers kept journals on their travels, and a few even employed naturalists on their voyages, the young Charles Darwin being a well-known example. When read with care, these travelogues convey an early attempt to describe and explain patterns in nature. A general introduction to global exploration, with maps, is provided in Royal Geographical Society 1997. Five cases are illustrative. William Dampier sailed around the world on a series of voyages extending from 1679 to 1691, keeping a journal that is surprisingly rich in descriptions of plant and animal life, even mentioning the “dildoe-trees,” iguanas, and tortoises of the Galapagos Islands (see Dampier 1697). An early travel account of North America (c. 1700) includes an amusing mixture of mostly accurate accounts of moose and moose hunting, mixed with fanciful creatures such as sea monsters and unicorns (Gagnon 2011). About a century later, Bartram 1791 describes travels through wild North America with an accuracy that still speaks to modern visitors. Roughly a generation later, Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, kept a journal of his travel in South America and the Malay Islands; excerpts can be found in Camerini 2002. Wallace’s writing, and Darwin 1839,show how much knowledge had accumulated just two centuries after Dampier’s adventures. Those of us raised in a world with satellite images of the Earth can easily forget how little was known about the world even in Darwin’s era. How easy it is to take the knowledge for granted! Reading of the suffering endured by Dampier and Wallace could remind us to be grateful for those who risked their health and their lives to describe the natural world.

Bartram, William. 1791. Travels through North&South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the extensive territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the country of the Chactaws; Containing an account of the soil and natural productions of those regions, together with observations on the manners of the Indians. Philadelphia: James and Johnson.

An entertaining account of one man’s travels through southern North America, replete with now vanished species and landscapes. There is an electronic version available through Documenting the American South.

Camerini, Jane R., ed. 2002. The Alfred Russel Wallace reader: A selection of writings from the field.Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780801867811]

Wallace had a very different career path from Darwin. This book includes readings from his youth in Wales, his explorations in the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago, and his later life back in England.

Dampier, William. 1697. A new voyage round the world. London: Knapton.

This book first appeared in 1697 and went through multiple editions, most recently a 1937 reprint now available at Project Gutenberg.

Darwin, Charles. 1839. The Voyage of the Beagle. London: Henry Colburn.

Darwin’s first book, an account of his travels on the Beagle, appeared in 1839 as the third volume of The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ship Adventure and Beagle. It has been known since 1905 simply as The Voyage of the Beagle (see R. B. Freeman). The original text is available online through Project Gutenberg, and a recent reprint is The Voyage of the Beagle (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2009).

Gagnon, François-Marc. 2011. The Codex canadensis and the writings of Louis Nicolas. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780773538764]

A delightful account of North American wild nature through the eyes of a visitor from Europe, with mostly sympathetic accounts of moose hunting, beaver trapping, and native life. Many of the creatures in the plates can be recognized as still extant (not the unicorns).

Royal Geographical Society. 1997. Oxford atlas of exploration. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780195213539]

A colorful, well-illustrated account of the great era of global exploration. Perfect for a coffee table, and ideal for quiet evenings of pleasure. A starting point and context for more detailed reading about individual adventures.

Resource Exploitation

For as long as people have hunted, fished, cut trees, and grown crops, there have been books of advice about how to do it better. These emphasize how to exploit more efficiently more often than how to husband more wisely. Nonetheless, they provide a view of human relationships with wild nature. The emphasis here is on a subset of such books, mostly those that have addressed the overuse of the Earth’s natural resources. These begin with Hornaday 1913’s documentation of the slaughter of America’s wild birds: “We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage. It is time for a sweeping Reformation; and that is precisely what we now demand” (p. x). This led directly to early conservation laws in North America. A generation later, Clements showed by action and in writing (e.g., Clements 1935) that scientists can apply research to solving pressing environmental problems. Another generation later, Carson 1962’s chilling title Silent spring described how pesticides were not only poisoning birds but hampering their reproduction. The Club of Rome, a global think tank, provided a global overview of resource exploitation, population growth and pollution in Meadows, et al. 1974. To reasoned observers, the message was self-evident, but the vitriol that resulted is reminiscent of the current hate-fest directed against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mark Twain once observed something to the effect that there is no point trying to convince people of something if it will cost them money to agree with you. Thirgood 1981 describes how millennia of over-exploitation have created the modern landscape of southern Europe and northern Africa. Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981 described the growing rate of extinction as a threat to the world’s biodiversity. A beautifully illustrated companion book that offers a global perspective on resource limitations is Myers 1985.

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

A groundbreaking account of the impacts of pesticides on wildlife. The pesticide industry hounded and bullied the author through her last months; she died of cancer in April 1964. The book is widely credited for stimulating the environmental laws of the late 20th century.

Clements, Frederic E. 1935. Experimental ecology in the public service. Ecology 16:324–363.

An inspiring essay from a senior ecologist, describing the many ways in which scientists can serve the public with their research. Short, yet broad in implications. Usually ignored by contemporary scholars (check their literature cited): their loss, but also a deficiency transmitted to students and other readers.

Ehrlich, Anne, and Paul Ehrlich. 1981. Extinction: The causes and consequences of the disappearance of species. New York: Random House. [ISBN: 9780394513126]

There are newer and more detailed books, but this is still fundamental reading for anyone concerned about vanishing species. Here is where you can read about the rivet model for how species extinctions must ultimately affect human welfare. For the latest data, consult the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Hornaday, William T. 1913. Our vanishing wild life: Its extermination and preservation. New York: New York Zoological Society.

A harrowing account of wildlife slaughter before the days of basic fish and game laws. Still found in used book stores, but also online at Project Gutenberg.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1974. The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2d ed. New York: Universe. [ISBN: 9780876631652]

A classic Malthusian account of the limitations facing humans in their exploitation of the Earth’s resources. Either we are limited by the shortage of resources, or by the pollution caused by exploiting them. Although obvious in its message, many found it controversial, and still do. First published in 1972.

Myers, Norman, ed. 1985. The Gaia atlas of planet management. London and Sydney: Pan. [ISBN: 9780330284912]

This is a beautiful and thought-provoking book that uses pictures as much as words to illustrate the current status of the Earth’s resources and the pressures humans are putting on them. An excellent gift, it should be in every school library and doctor’s office in the world.

Thirgood, Jack V. 1981. Man and the Mediterranean forest: A history of resource depletion. London: Academic Press. [ISBN: 9780126872507]

A long-term view of the negative effects of logging and grazing on the Mediterranean ecosystems that supported classical Greece and Rome. When one takes a Mediterranean tour, one sees the results of several millennia of land abuse, and perhaps a hint of the future.

Popular Science

This section includes books that are deliberately written to convey important scientific principles to the general reader, sometimes in the guise of travel adventures. A well-known historical example is The Voyage of the Beagle, published for a literate audience interested in science and exploration (see Darwin 1839, cited under Travelogues). Colinvaux 1978 is a current example, and one that emphasizes scientific principles rather than using physical travel as a template. Levin 1994 is written as a college textbook, but it is such a beautifully illustrated account of the Earth’s history that it also belongs in the popular science category. Hardin 1993 returns to the classic work by Thomas Malthus (e.g., An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798), with new data and thoughtful analysis of the risk posed by growing levels of immigration from areas with high population growth rates. Hardin’s book leads naturally back to Meadows, et al. 1974 (cited under Resource Exploitation). It also naturally leads to concerns about the wave of extinction now passing over the Earth. The term “endangered species” may have become a journalistic cliché, but too many science writers do not seem to understand how rapidly populations can change, nor how dependent they may be on the small proportion of mature females—thus, the background of Begon and Mortimer 1981 (cited under Classic Books) and Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981 (cited under Resource Exploitation). Although the term “the balance of nature” often shows up in ecological writing, Botkin 1990 explores some recent advances in ecological understanding, and some of the problems—conceptual and applied—that arise out of episodic disturbances like fire. As a sort of limiting case, Alvarez 1997 describes the search for the greatest disturbance of the last 65 million years: the event that ended the age of dinosaurs and gymnosperms (Cretaceous) and initiated the age of mammals and flowering plants (Tertiary). Since humans are now having an impact that may rival that enormous extinction, Noss and Cooperrider 1994 explains the basic principles of designing nature reserve systems. A comprehensive network is an important human priority for the 21st century. How to recognize and allow natural changes in wild ecosystems is an increasing challenge. Clearly some changes like fire, floods, and succession are a natural part of wild nature, while other changes, like exotic invasive species and logging, are not. This distinction is important for general appreciation of nature, for scientific study, and for nature reserve management, as explored in books such as Botkin 1990 and Noss and Cooperrider 1994, as well as Keddy 2007 (cited under General Overviews).

Alvarez, Walter. 1997. T. rex and the crater of doom. New York: Random House. [ISBN: 9780691016306]

A “cloud of roiling debris that blackened the sky for months.” The impact left a layer of iridium deposits around the world. The Chicxulub crater can still be visited in the Yucatan. Like Colinvaux 1978, a great gift for non-scientists.

Botkin, Daniel B. 1990. Discordant harmonies: A new ecology for the twenty-first century. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780195054910]

A very readable account of how natural disturbances such as storms and fires complicate our simplistic understanding of the processes that create natural ecosystems.

Colinvaux, Paul. 1978. Why big fierce animals are rare: An ecologist’s perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780691023649]

Essential reading, whether you are an armchair reader or a serious student (or professor) of ecology. It explains why, for example, big fierce animals really are rather rare. A great gift for parents who wonder why you are studying ecology in the first place.

Hardin, Garrett. 1993. Living within limits: Ecology, economics and population taboos. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780195078114]

This book explains “life boat ethics,” “the tragedy of the commons,” and why “conscience is self-eliminating.” It will clarify your thinking on immigration and population growth. Our best Malthusian writer of the generation.

Levin, Harold L. 1994. The earth through time. 4th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Saunders College Publishing. [ISBN: 9780030985942]

This is a college textbook, but it is so copiously illustrated and so clearly written that it provides a delightful overview of life on Earth. Perfect assigned reading for anyone who claims to harbor doubts about evolution.

Noss, Reed F., and Allen Y. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving nature’s legacy: Protecting and restoring biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island. [ISBN: 9781559632478]

One conservation priority for preventing mass extinction is to set up a global reserve system with “cores and corridors.” If you wonder what you can do to help endangered species, here is how to apply your talents: find a local opportunity to help construct this global network.