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Nature Notes January 2020

 

The science of Ecology is one of the newest academic disciplines taught at Universities, and did not really exist until about the 1950s.  Prior to that, we had nature study, the sort of thing written about by the Reverend Gilbert White in the Natural History of Selbourne published in 1788-9. Prior to that we also had taxonomy (classification of living organisms) in the form of a book called Systema Naturae written by Carl Linnaeus and published in 1735.  Later, we also had The Origin of Species written by Charles Darwin and published in 1859.  However, most of this was natural history, and most of the animals that were studied were actually shot dead by the people writing about them.  The plants were collected and dried and displayed in herbaria and the animals in natural history museums that also contained collections of pinned dead insects.  Killing things was excusable and seen as sport.

During the 1950s and 60s wildflower and bird guidebooks started to appear.  Then with television came programmes such as ‘Look’ with Peter Scott (son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic fame).  We also had Johnny Morris at Bristol Zoo as a keeper and Desmond Morris with Zoo Time from 1956 and through the 1960s. Meanwhile, schools and universities were teaching Biology along with Physics, Chemistry and Geography, but the subject of Ecology never really emerged on its own until about the early 1970s.  Ecology comes from the Greek words ‘oikos logos’ which mean ‘home study’.  So, the science is the study of the ‘homes’ of plants, animals and other organisms such as fungi, bacteria, algae, slime moulds viruses etc.  During this time, new kinds of books began to appear such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which tells of a terrible world resulting from the over-use of pesticides resulting in the loss of all song-birds – hence ‘Silent Spring’. This book motivated biologists to start looking at the human (anthropogenic) effects of our activities on the natural world around us.  Not only that, but we started studying the effects of one organism on another and produced the term ‘balance of nature’.  We looked at the water and carbon cycle, trophic cascades and such things as density dependent mortality.  Suddenly we had a mature science and just in time too, because if we did not, we would have run into the seriousness of human activity effects on the planet’s ecosystems completely blind.

 Dr.Martyn Stenning