Book Club: The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants

Oh, how easily I fall in love with historical figures! In preparation for my preliminary exams, I chose Charles S. Elton’s The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants to help nurture my desire to rid myself of the ignorance I tend to show towards the field of ecology.2253740

Little did I know that I would find this book such a delight. Elton makes the topic ridiculously accessible to the general reader, something I wish I saw a little more from Mayr. I have found the secret lies in the ability to present concepts juxtaposed with quirky moments of history. It then allows one to pocket bits of trivia they boast about later on during social events, such as over the guzzlement of free wine offered at the speaker receptions. (As a sidenote, guzzlement is now officially a word.)

Anyways, back to my adoration of Charles Sutherland Elton. I have not read a book that made so much sense in a really long time. The practicality is quite eloquent. The guy really lays it out for you plain and simple:

“An ecological explosion means the enormous increase in number of some kind of living organism…I use the word ‘explosion’ deliberately, because it means the bursting out from control of forces that were previously held in restraint by other forces. Indeed the word was originally used to describe the barracking of actors by an audience they were no longer able to restrain by the quality of their performance.” (p. 15)

He covers all forms of invasions from the fungal infection of the chestnut trees to the disgusting ship rats that swim ashore an island after a shipwreck to the devastation of the bubonic plague. Elton leaves no system behind (which I think is admirable because everyone has a tendency to think in terms of their own organism)! I was concerned that I would be bored to tears with yet another recounting tale of the gypsy moths (which are mentioned), but I learned so much about so many different plants and animals (and fungi! and viruses! and bactieral infections! oh my!).I also had (shamefully) never heard of Wallace’s Realms before until I read this book (six geographic areas of the world separated by natural biogeographic barriers (such as the Himalayas) that help to explain the distribution of the planet’s flora and fauna), but he develops their importance to understanding invasion biology and the realms serve as a premis for the rest of the book (which has completely henceforth changed the way I view macroevolution). His ability to synthesize concepts from all fields is remarkable. Elton himself is renowned for his work in trophic cascades and food webs. However, here he is tying together biogeography, competition, predator-prey oscillations, and food chains all to help the poor, ignorant reader understand invasion biology. And he makes it so simple to grasp. I just simply cannot get enough.

More reasons why Elton is ridiculously cool. He used Walt Whitman’s poem “As consequent, etc.” to help make his point regarding pest invasions. He was a badass field ecologist. Here is a picture of Elton a motorbike carrying a sack of mousetraps to survey field mice and voles.

Elton on motorbike

marry me

His nearly accidental allowance of an outbreak of Wisconsin beetle grubs into England is adorable:

“I learned how easily it is to bring in a foreign insect when I carried home a few large American acorns just before the War. I only wanted to have them on my desk for mementos. A few days after I got back some chafer beetle grubs emerged from the acorns. Of course I dropped the whole lot into boiling water to kill them instantly, and that was the end of it. When the customs officer had asked me whether I had anything to declare, it never occurred to me to say ‘acorns’, and I am not sure if he would have been interested if I had.” (p. 111)

On top of that, he gives a plethora of justification for caring about the maintenance of the diversity of life even if you happen to be an insensitive jerk that doesn’t see innate beauty in all of nature (okay fine, or if there are cultural differences (see rhino horn story)).

As a closing remark, thank you Charles Elton for opening my eyes to a field I have remained so myopic towards for so long. Your above photograph will be joining my wall of scientific objects of desire heros.

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