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DARWIN AND THE WORLD'S FIRST ECOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT

Thursday 24 January 2002



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 today*1, 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.

Woburn Abbey, in Bedfordshire, England
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. Click here to see a plan of the grounds of Woburn Abbey.
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 fact*2. 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 Library 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
diversitycan 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.