History of Ecology

History of Ecology

History of Ecology
Father of Ecology: Alexander Von Humboldt

Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms.  Here is a brief history of ecology in a chronological order (timeline).  These include important events and contributions made by many ecologists from the dawn of time to the subject of ecology.

Origin of Ecology

Ernst HaeckelIn 1869, Earnst Haeckel coined the term “ecology”. It comes from the Greek word Oikos meaning “household” and logos meaning “study of”, therefore the “study of nature’s household”. Relating this definition to science, ecology becomes the study of the management of the natural environment which includes the relations of organisms with one another and to their surroundings.

It is said that ecology as a scientific discipline is a multidisciplinary one. It often encompasses several fields like biology, geography, and Earth science.

However, ecology is not always focused on the environment but also in man as well. Practical applications in ecology include conservation biology, restoration ecology, resource management, and wetland management.

History of Ecology As A Science

Ecology History - A Timeline

During the pre-18th Century


  • 4th Century B.C.E: Ecological thought is said to derive its roots from the early teachings of philosophy, ethics, and politics.
    Aristotle and Theophrastus were considered as the one of the first ecologists who had the interest of studying plants and animals. Theophrastus had described several interrelationships that exist between living organisms and their environment.

During the 18th Century

    • Early 18th Century: Two schools of thought dominated the growing scientific study of ecology.
    • The first school of thought is the “Arcadian Ecology” which advocates for “simple, humble life for man” and a harmonious relationship with man and nature. On the other hand, the second school of thought, known as the “Imperial Ecology” believe in the establishment of man’s dominance over nature through the exercise of reason and by hard work.
    • Both views rivaled through the early years of the 18th century until Carolus Linnaeus came in the picture.


  • 1758:  Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linne) pioneered the field of taxonomy, the science of naming and classifying organisms. Linnaeus discovered a vast number of plants and animals and recorded them in his book entitled Systema Naturae (PDF).
  • Linnaeus became a huge supporter of Imperialism and because of his immense popularity, the view of Imperial Ecology became the dominant view within the discipline.

During the 19th Century

    • Early 19th century: Countries such as Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain have set several expeditions to discover new natural resources and to make records about them.
    • 1804: Alexander von Humboldt reported an impressive number of species, particularly plants, for which he sought to explain their geographic distribution with respect to geological data. One year after, he published his work entitled Idea for Plant Geography (PDF). Alexander von Humboldt was considered as the father of ecology by many scholars.
    • 1859: In this year, Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution and adaptation. According to this theory, organisms change over time because of their inherited traits and characters. Such evolutionary changes are what then allow them to adapt better to their environment. These changes also ensure survival by increasing the likelihood of producing more offspring. Check out the history of evolution here.
    • Charles Darwin’s fame can be greatly attributed to his idea of natural selection or more commonly referred to as “survival of the fittest”. Along with Alfred Russel Wallace, who defined the role of natural selection in the formation of various organisms, Charles Darwin published all his observations, proposed mechanisms, and discoveries in his book entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
    • 1869: Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ecology”. Since then, ecology became the study of the relationships of organisms with their environment.
    • 1875: Eduard Seuss first defined the term biosphere (from Greek bios = life, sphaira, sphere) as the system composed of living organisms and their environment.
    • 1879: Not long after, symbiosis or the living together in more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms, was first described.
    • 1895: Eugen Warming introduced the discipline of biogeography. Biogeography, as its name suggests, is the study of the geographic distribution of living things.  Under this discipline, abiotic factors like wind, fire, temperature, etc. are being studied.
    • The study of ecology was greatly enhanced by the discovery of nitrogen cycle by Antoine Lavoisier and Theodore de Saussure. Nitrogen is considered as one of the major nutrients important for the survival of all living organisms and the discovery of how it is cyclically produced into various forms paved the way for the better understanding of nutrient uptake in living organisms. Here is an interesting research article on nitrogen cycle.

20th Century up to the present

    • 1920:   The study of human ecology emerged. The goal of this discipline was to increase the role of ecological science in the management of cities and residential places.
    • 1926:    Vladimir I. Vernadsky in his book entitled The Biosphere, redefined biosphere as the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with the elements of the lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Here is an excerpt from his work.
    • 1935:    Arthur Tansley coined the term ecosystem as the biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. Because of this, ecology became the science of ecosystems.
    • 1940:    Patrick studied interdependence of organisms, particularly freshwater ecosystems. She developed methods to measure the health of a stream.
    • 1950:    The harmful effects of pollution to ecosystems became known to people.
    • 1953:    Eugene Odum and Howard Odum wrote the first ecology textbook and ecology became a university course.
    • 1960:    The discipline of Ecology gained much public prominence because of the widespread concern for the state of the environment.
    • 1970:    James Lovelock introduced the term Gaia, or the idea that the whole earth is one living entity and will ensure its own survival even if humans destroy themselves.
    • 1971:    UNESCO launched the research program Man and Biosphere in the goal of increasing the awareness of humans about their relationship with nature. More info can be found here.
    • 1978:    Conservation Biology established as a discipline focusing on environmental management.
    • At present, the endeavor of continuing ecological research is fueled by the desire of man to restore and conserve the ecology of the planet. A lot of questions on different biological phenomena still remain unanswered so quests still continue.


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Cite this article as: "History of Ecology," in Bio Explorer, November 3, 2016, http://www.bioexplorer.net/history_of_biology/ecology/.


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