Darwin and the world’s first ecological experiment

Scientists examining the work that influenced Charles Darwin have rediscovered the details of what may be the world’s first ecological experiment.

Darwin, in his Origin of Species of 1859, referred to an experiment investigating the biology of grassland plants that showed how a greater diversity of grasses planted in experimental plots was responsible for greater production of plant matter. This subject, the relationship between biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems, is currently one of the hottest in ecology.

But he didn`t leave any clues as to where or when this experiment was done, and the source of his knowledge remained forgotten.

Now, writing in the journal Science published today1, Andy Hector of Imperial College, London, UK, and Rowan Hooper of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan, describe their successful hunt for the lost details.

They discovered that George Sinclair, head gardener to the Duke of Bedford in the early nineteenth century, carried out the experiments in a garden at Woburn Abbey in South East England.

His experimental garden was detailed in the 1816 first edition of the book Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis and his results were published in the third edition of 1826. The Origin of Species was published in 1859.

The experimental garden he laid out compared the performance of different species and mixtures of grasses and herbs growing on different types of soil. A plan of the garden lists the plant mixtures grown in 242 plots, each two feet square.

Dr Hector of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College, said:

“Some ecologists have said that Darwin was the first to state the relationship, based on a line in the Origin of Species, but our historical research reveals a much more solid base.”

“This pushes back the link between community and ecosystems ecology back to the birth of the subject, before it even had a name in fact2. We`ve now found the experimental work, since forgotten, that inspired these ideas and, to the best of our knowledge, this work at Woburn Abbey is arguably the first ecological experiment.”

The authors were intrigued by Darwin’s reference in the Origin of Species, but because it was published without any references, there was no evidence to back up the claim. However, an incomplete but referenced manuscript for a larger book, Natural Selection, revealed the identity of the mystery work.

The authors began their research as an intriguing sideline to their main interests, which lie in exploring the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. With the help of many colleagues their document chase took them from library to library and eventually to the British Museum Rare Manuscripts collection, where they found the original book, complete with beautiful dried, pressed specimens of the plant species studied.

Dr Hector said:

“Darwin and his contemporaries raised the problem of explaining the diversity of the natural world – where did it come from? How that diversity is maintained and co-exists, rather than a few species taking over, went on to be a central question in ecology and evolution, and still is.”

“More recently fears over the loss of diversity have led us to ask what it does in ecosystems. While the emphasis was on explaining diversity, Darwin clearly also understood the other side of the coin – that the processes that maintain diversity can also affect ecosystem functioning.”

Researchers from the Darwin Correspondence Project based at Cambridge, UK – who are publishing all of Darwin`s letters – helped put this work into historical context.

1. The essay is published in the journal Science on 25 January, and the embargo is 7pm GMT / 2 p.m. US ET on Thursday, 24 January 2002.

2. In fact German biologist Ernst Haeckel only coined the term `Ecology` in 1866.

3. The Centre for Population Biology, established in 1989, is funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and is hosted by Imperial College where it is part of the Department of Biological Sciences on its Silwood Park campus. It publishes about 90 papers per year and its core mission is to conduct basic research in population biology and related disciplines to understand and predict the functioning of ecosystems. The CPB receives UKP1.1 million core funding per year. Web site at: www.cpb.bio.ic.ac.uk

4. The UK`s Natural Environment Research Council funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. For more information visit their website at www.nerc.ac.uk

5. Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine is the largest applied science, technology and medicine university institution in the UK. In the December 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, 75 per cent of staff achieved a 5* rating, the highest proportion in any UK university. All departments visited and assessed for their teaching have scored between 21 and 24 points out of 24 or, in the previous system, have been judged excellent. www.ic.ac.uk

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