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History of Ecology
F N Egerton, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, USA © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Natural History Further Reading
Ernst Haeckel in 1866 expressed the need for a science of ecology, and two aspects of it, limnology and plant ecology, were organized by the 1890s. However, ecological observations and ideas began with the ancient Greeks. Much ecological information was acquired in a broad science, natural history, which included plants, animals, rocks, and soils. After 1800, aspects of natural history gradually were absorbed into more specialized sciences.
The earliest ecological concept was the balance of nature, which arose from observations by Herodotus that predatory animals have fewer offspring than their prey and by Plato that each species has means to survive. Later, the sciences of zoology and botany were founded at Aristotle's school, the Lyceum. Supposedly, Aristotle wrote the zoological treatises and Theophrastos the botanical treatises; more likely, Theophrastos organized and compiled all of them. In Roman times, these sciences were abstracted in Pliny's Natural History and then remained part of a science of natural history.
During the Middle Ages, ancient natural history knowledge was recovered and expanded. Emperor Friedrich II recorded careful observations on raptors and their prey in his treatise on falconry. Scholastic Albertus Magnus wrote two lengthy encyclopedias on the natural history of plants and on animals, synthesizing ancient Arabic and contemporary European knowledge (including his own observations).
During the 1500s, Albertus' encyclopedic tradition was continued by Italian, French, and German herbalists, and the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (Figure 1) wrote natural histories of both animals and plants but only published the former before he died of plague in 1565. Two Italian physicians made important contributions to contagion theory: Girolamo Fracastoro (Figure 2) published
De contagione (1546) and Girolamo Gambuccini published the first book on parasitic worms (1547). Aldrovandi and Penny wrote encyclopedias on insects in the late 1500s which were published in the 1600s. Scientific societies arose in mid-1600s and published both books and periodicals which included natural history. Francesco Redi's, John Ray's, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek's publications were especially important for natural history (Figures 3-5). All three, for example, studied animal parasites. John Graunt, William Petty, and Matthew Hale advanced human demography in the late 1600s.
Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli published the first treatise on what we call 'oceanography' in 1725, Histoirephysique dela mer, which included information on temperature, salinity,
tides, currents, depth contours, and marine plants and animals. He realized that further studies required organized efforts. That began with Captain James Cook's three world exploration voyages, 1768-79, with accompanying
naturalists. Rene Antoine de Reaumur (Figure 6) made detailed and precise studies of the life histories of insects and other invertebrates in his Histoire des insects (6 vols., 1734-42). The balance of nature concept was originally limited to animals. Carl Linnaeus (Figure 7) named the concept 'economy of nature' and broadened it to include plants - in dissertations which his students defended for their degrees, but which were essentially written by him. His Oeconomia Naturae (1749) was the first attempt to organize an ecological science. Linnaeus believed in the stability of species, and his economy of nature concept was not as dynamic as post-Darwinian ecology became, but he believed that members of each species flourish or not within a cycle of plant succession. In Philosophia Botanica (1751), he itemized 25 different stations (habitats) of plants. His contemporary, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (Figure 8), with collaborators, wrote a large Histoire naturelle (44 vols., 1749-1804, though his contributions ended with his death in 1788). Linnaeus and Buffon received many plants and animals from explorers in distant places, and they struggled to explain the similarities and differences among species. Buffon developed a speculative theory that a limited number of species arose initially in a small area, and as their populations increased, they spread out into the rest of the world and were modified into new species by their new surroundings. Clergyman Gilbert White (Figure 9) published The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
(1789) that contains accurate observations on locations and habits of local plants and animals; it became the most widely read work on natural history. Investigators of different kinds of 'airs' tested them on plants and animals, beginning with Stephen Hales, the founder of plant physiology, and
culminating with Joseph Priestley and Jan Ingen-Housz, who discovered that plants in sunlight produce a gas (named 'oxygen' by Antoine Laurent Lavoisier) that animals need for respiration. This was new evidence of the balance of nature.
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