Darwin and the First Ecological Experiment

The disappearance of species from Earth has been likened to the loss of rivets from an airplane (1). This vivid analogy has inspired ecologists to think about how changes in biodiversity affect the way that ecosystems operate. We tend to view this research, which is currently one of the most active areas in ecology, as relatively new, but as with many things in biology, Darwin got there first (24). In TheOrigin of Species(3) Darwin says, “It has been experimentally proved that if a plot of ground be sown with one species of grass, and a similar plot be sown with several distinct genera of grasses, a greater number of plants and a greater weight of dry herbage can thus be raised.”

Darwin clearly identifies that ecological differences between species can make communities both more diverse and more productive. But which experiment was he referring to? Unfortunately, The Origin of Species does not contain references as it was intended only as an abstract for an unfinished longer work, Natural Selection, which was put to one side after Wallace independently conceived the same theory of evolution. An edited version of Natural Selection based on Darwin’s writings was eventually published in 1975 complete with references (5). The work Darwin refers to comes from an 1826 article by the Duke of Bedford’s head gardener, George Sinclair (6). In his article, Sinclair describes experiments conducted at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England, at the start of the 19th century. The results of these experiments were originally published in Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis(HGW) (7).

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