Origins of the concept of ‘Ecosystem’

A quick and slightly unsatisfactory look at the history of the idea of ‘ecosystem’


The History of the Ecosystem Concept:


The ecosystem concept: A search for order – August 1991, Ecological Research (can’t find open full text link)



The term ecosystem was first used in 1935 in a publication by British ecologist Arthur Tansley.[fn 1][7] Tansley devised the concept to draw attention to the importance of transfers of materials between organisms and their environment.[8] He later refined the term, describing it as “The whole system, … including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment”.[9] Tansley regarded ecosystems not simply as natural units, but as “mental isolates”.[9] Tansley later defined the spatial extent of ecosystems using the term ecotope.[10]

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a limnologist who was a contemporary of Tansley’s, combined Charles Elton‘s ideas about trophic ecology with those of Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. As a result, he suggested that mineral nutrient availability in a lake limited algal production. This would, in turn, limit the abundance of animals that feed on algae. Raymond Lindeman took these ideas further to suggest that the flow of energy through a lake was the primary driver of the ecosystem. Hutchinson’s students, brothers Howard T. Odum and Eugene P. Odum, further developed a “systems approach” to the study of ecosystems. This allowed them to study the flow of energy and material through ecological systems.[8]