Elton, Charles Sutherland (1900-1991) was a British biologist known as a pioneer in establishing the science of ecology, which deals with the relation of living things to their environment and to one another.
Elton was born on March 29, 1900, in Manchester, England. His father was a professor and chair of the English literature department at the university in Manchester. Soon after Elton was born, the family moved to the west-coast of England, where the elder Elton joined the staff of Liverpool University. It was there, at about the age of 9, that the younger Elton became interested in nature. He was greatly influenced by his brother, Geoffrey, who taught him to observe all things and watch for the principles that control their lives.
Elton studied zoology at Oxford University. In 1921, Elton was an assistant to Julian Sorell Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, who was a strong advocate of Charles Robert Darwin's theory of evolution, on Oxford's Arctic expedition to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. He was then invited to go along on the second Arctic expedition two years later and the third expedition, in 1924. During the expeditions, Elton conducted ecological studies of animal life in the region.
Elton graduated from Oxford in 1922 with high honors. A few years later, he was appointed biological consultant to the Hudson Bay Company. He kept this position for five years. During this time, he studied the fluctuation of fur-bearing animals and their prey.
In 1932, Elton helped found the Bureau of Animal Population (BAP), which became an international research center for the collation and interpretation of animal population data collected worldwide. Elton served as its director from 1932 to 1967. Over the course of the BAP's 35 years, the center provided a lot of valuable information on the effects of environmental changes on animal populations and relationships between populations of predators and their prey. The BAP later became an official unit of Oxford University. Elton was also a reader in animal ecology at Oxford University and a senior research fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from 1936 to 1967.
During World War II (1939-1945), Elton offered BAP's services to investigate the loss of food due to rodents in the field and in storage areas. Elton and his team were very successful in controlling the rodent problem. After the war, the BAP's reputation grew under the leadership of Elton. However, he was not a political player at Oxford University, and this eventually led to the demise of the BAP. When Elton retired in 1967, the scientists who worked for the BAP were absorbed into Oxford's zoology department without any independent status.
Elton contributed greatly to the science of ecology. He recognized that animal species and populations fit together in their environment to form communities. He recognized the concept of ecological niche—the idea that each species has a unique function and place within the environment. He also pointed out that a large number of plants are needed to supply food for a smaller number of plant-eating animals. Such animals, in turn, provide food for an even smaller number of meat-eating creatures. Elton called this natural system of food relationships a pyramid of numbers. He also was instrumental in establishing the Nature Conservancy Council in 1949.
Elton's first book, Animal Ecology, published in 1927, established some of the basic concepts of ecology, including food chains nutrient cycles, ecological niches, and the pyramid of numbers. In his book, Animal Ecology and Evolution, published in 1930, he described how animals could select more favorable environments by migration. He also presented the implications of this in the process of natural selection. His other works included The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958) and The Pattern of Animal Communities (1966).
Elton married Edith Joy Scovell in 1937. They had two children. He died on May 1, 1991.