Books that all ecology grad students should read

What books do you think all ecology grad students should read, if they’re going to become broadminded, thoughtful, well-informed ecologists?

This is a pretty high bar. There are lots of books I really admire and that have profoundly influenced my thinking as an ecologist that I would not argue that every ecologist should read. Just because those books worked for me doesn’t mean they’d work for everyone. And while every ecology grad student obviously needs to have sufficient general knowledge of ecology, there’s no one textbook I’d say everyone should read. In part because there are other ways to acquire the requisite knowledge besides reading a textbook.

My suggestions all have to do with getting up to speed on the history and current status of the field, while also hopefully encouraging students to think critically rather than seeing “classic” work as settled and unquestionable.* Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it and all that.

I’ve never read most of these, so one motivation for this post is to publicly embarrass myself into reading them!

Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries is my #1 suggestion. Just what it sounds like: reprints of 40 classic papers, along with commentaries placing them in the context of their time and in the subsequent development of the field.

I’d also suggest reading a proper history of ecology, but I’m not sure if there’s one I’d pick over any other. Modeling Nature is a candidate, though with a focus on the population-y side of ecology. The Background of Ecology is another.

How about something that gives you a big-picture sense of how ecologists think, or more precisely the range of ways that they think? As a way of introducing you to the intellectual “culture” of the field. The Idea of Biodiversity might fit the bill; it comprises interviews with a bunch of prominent ecologists and conservation biologists (Jane Lubchenco, Peter Raven, Paul Ehrlich…) about the interplay of their science, their personal values, and their politics. (ht Mark Vellend, via the comments)

And how about something contrarian, philosophical, or outside the mainstream of ecological thought? Something that shakes you out of your “dogmatic slumbers“, challenges fundamental assumptions you didn’t even realize you were making, and so really gets you thinking? Which means it’s got to be sufficiently well-founded to be worth wrestling with; it can’t just be crazy or whatever. My own PhD supervisory committee had me read A Critique for Ecology and Method in Ecology. But both of those are kind of old. Maybe The Theory of Ecology?

I think everyone should read On the Origin of Species.

And of course, it goes without saying that all ecology grad students should read this blog. But I’ll say it anyway. 🙂

What books would you make every ecology grad student read?

*”Classic” doesn’t mean “correct”. Reading old papers is counterproductive to the extent that it exposes you to zombie ideas.

60 thoughts on “Books that all ecology grad students should read

    • Interesting suggestion. Yes, if you think all ecologists should know something about the the history of public and political interest in environmental issues, then Silent Spring is an obvious pick.

  1. I’ll put down a marker for Ecological Niches: Linking Classical and Contemporary Approaches by Chase & Leibold (2003). It’s the single book that had the greatest impact on the way I perceive the organisation of natural systems. Far from being ‘only’ about niches, it integrates them into just about every major stream of ecological research and emphasises the manner in which descriptive theories have to reduce to quantitative models in order to be useful, predictive and falsifiable. Plus it’s short, so can be read relatively quickly and used for a group discussion.

  2. “*”Classic” doesn’t mean “correct”. Reading old papers is counterproductive to the extent that it exposes you to zombie ideas.” But ignoring the history of a field because it has supposedly “progressed” is just as likely to allow “zombie” ideas to continue, perhaps more so, than reading “classic” essays in the historical and social context of a field.

  3. Perhaps should’ve noted this in the post, but here it is in the comments:

    I doubt I’m alone in not having read most of the stuff that I suggest all ecologists should read. Which suggests that maybe there *aren’t* any books that all ecologists should read? After all, if ecology as a whole is getting by despite many ecologists not having read book X, surely that means book X isn’t essential for ecologists to read…

    • I like the idea of including a stats book aimed at ecologists on the list. Hilborn and Mangel would certainly be a strong candidate there. Or maybe Ben Bolker’s book?

      Can you elaborate on your reasons for suggesting Allen & Hoekstra? I’m guessing you’re suggesting it as something contrarian/philosophical/outside the mainstream?

      • Allen & Hoektstra – sure, a little contrarian, a little philosophical. Some of it really works for me w/respect to thinking about scale across all levels of the ecological hierarchy, although some of it left me cold/confused.

        I guess it was the book on my shelf the offered the most across ecology’s subfields – you note that ‘Unified Neutral Theory’ is required reading for macroecologists/biogeographers, and ‘Ecological Niches’ is required reading for community ecologists, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a consensus choice for the entire discipline?

        ‘Unified Ecology’ is probably an oddball for that; would ‘Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology’ be the front runner so far? Which again: seems population and community ecology relevant, but doesn’t offer much for e.g. ecosystem ecology.

    • I second “The Ecological Detective!” I’m reading it now, and wishing someone had given it to me five years ago when I was starting grad school. It has clear explanations of statistics, focuses on functional models instead of ANOVAs, and includes a good primer on the main philosophies of science to boot.

      • I like The Ecological Detective but in my mind it gives one of the most muddled, confused and confusing description s of the difference between a model and a hypothesis that I have ever read.

  4. I’d actually arguing Peter’s “A critique for ecology” is still relevant and should be read by every graduate student. I don’t begin to agree with everything (even most) of what’s in there but it really challenged me to sharpen my game.

    To go along with Ted Case’s book (which I also recommend) for those with a little more math chops, I would say Roughgarden’s “Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology” is a must read. I devoured that book over one winter break and it is the foundations of all my understanding of population ecology and evolutionary theory. Rougharden was a rarity in understanding (and explaining well) the math but keeping the real world front and center.

    I’m tempted to put Rosenzweig’s “Species Diversity in Space and Time” on the list too. It didn’t just open new lines of inquiry it is a very vivid insight to how one of ecology’s great minds thinks and approaches science. And it is a quick read.

    • Re: putting Rosenzweig on the list, a closely-related question to mine would be “What’s a short list of a few books to read if you want to get up to speed on the *current* best thinking across all areas of ecology?” I’d think Rosenzweig would be on that list. What else would be on it?

      The challenge here is to keep it short. No telling people they have to read 50 books in order to get up to speed on the current best thinking in ecology!

    • Hi Brian, no surprise that I agree that A Critique for Ecology is a book I think every ecologist should read …even if it only forces you to sharpen your arguments against the case he makes for prediction. Peter’s co-wrote a book called Science and Limnology that makes many of the same arguments but I actually think is a bit leaner and tighter. I may even prefer it to A Critique…

  5. The “Foundations” book was the first one that occurred to me as well. I think a later book in the series, “Foundations of Tropical Forest Biology” is also important, even (or especially!) for those who don’t work in the tropics, edited by Chazdon & Whitmore. One thing you get from reading these classic papers is that they are often cited for concepts and face that you just don’t find in them. The commentaries in these volumes are just as valuable as the papers themselves, too.

    This also might seem a no-brainer, but a bunch of biologists I know have never actually read On the Origin of Species. Beyond the mechanism of natural selection, the number of observations and ideas that relate to what we are doing right now could be rather surprising. Also, Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago for similar reasons. There are so many as-yet-formally-untested-but-potentially-important concepts in there.

    I also agree on Ted Case’s Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology. Alternatively, or in addition, I also think Hanna Kokko’s Modelling for Field Ecologists as an entry-level for students to contextualize how/why models work and are important.

    I also think Gotelli & Ellison’s Primer of Ecological Statistics is just a gorgeously lucid and straightforward treatment of how and we do basic analyses on experiments, and informs how they’re designed, that this is a great foundation for everybody. If I had a new grad student who wasn’t comfortable with statistics coming into the lab, then this is where I’d start.

  6. To help ecologists think about management and modelling, “Analysis and Management of Animal Populations” by Williams, Nichols, and Conroy.

    And speaking of underread classics, “King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz. It’s not directly ecology but I think ecology should have knowledge of ethology/behaviour.

  7. I’m intrigued that there haven’t been more suggestions, and that there isn’t a whole lot of consensus. I wonder if it would be the same in other fields? Or are there more obvious classics in, say, cell biology or physics or geology?

  8. Here is a list that my graduate students and I came up with for some of the popular science books that all ecologists and conservation biologists should try to read (in no order):

    Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
    Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
    The Double Helix by James D. Watson
    The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson
    The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner
    A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
    A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
    My first summer in the Sierra by John Muir
    Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History by Steven J Gould
    Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
    Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenbug
    The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
    Requiem for Nature by John Terborgh
    Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina
    Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth
    The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
    The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
    One River by Wade Davis
    Gorillas in the Mist by Diane Fossey
    The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
    King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz
    The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
    A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher
    Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen

  9. A couple of other possibilities just arrived in my mailbox:

    Sharon Kingsland’s The Evolution of American Ecology 1890-2000. Looks to be focused on the ecosystem-y side of things, so perhaps a good complement to Modeling Nature.

    Nancy Slack’s G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology. A biography of Hutchinson, and so not necessarily essential. Important as Hutchinson was, I wouldn’t say that there’s any one ecologist that all ecology grad students really ought to read a book-length biography of. But your mileage may vary.

  10. I think all the suggestions are meritorious. What I found lacking thus far, though, were works from “outside the box”. Being a great ecologist does not necessarily mean being great at ecology. Huh… what… how could that be??? Well, I cannot say enough about cross-disciplinary approaches… never, ever enough. The best advice I could give any ecologist aspiring to greatness would be to turn his/ her back on the field for a time, and become immersed in something else. Chemistry, physics, molecular biology, what have you. Expanding ones mind means expanding beyond the box.

    • Interesting comment, I think it sorts of gets back to that old post of mine on the works that most influenced me as an ecologist. They aren’t ecological works–they’re philosophy and other things. I agree that the broad perspective you get from having some familiarity with some other field is good for you as an ecologist.

      • I was thinking in terms of more than familiarity. I was suggesting becoming as versed in another field as ecology. I know many do not have such opportunity, but I believe we need to change the model, as it were.

      • “I was suggesting becoming as versed in another field as ecology.”

        Wow! As it sounds like you’re aware, that’s a really radical suggestion. Not gonna happen, of course–you can’t require all ecologists to get two PhDs (or require them all to get, say, 2 MScs and no PhDs). And that’s only the first of many insurmountable obstacles to making it happen!

        We just know a lot more now than we did in, say, the mid-19th century, so that it’s no longer possible for anyone to be an expert in what are now considered to be separate fields. Increasing specialization has its costs, of course, but it also has benefits, and in any case it’s inevitable.

  11. The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography is a book I would recommend for every ecologist. I realise it’s not as fashionable as it once was but it was, in my opinion, the most ambitious book since The Theory of Island Biogeography (Hey….!!!). It set an example for ecologist’s to think big, try and explain the world, don’t be content with babysteps…take great big strides and hope you don’t step in something ugly. Was it an unqualified success..not a chance. But it set the a bar that I don’t think anybody’s come close to in the last dozen years.

    • But unless you do macroecology, biogeography, or certain bits of community ecology, Hubbell’s book isn’t of any special relevance. Quite apart from how successful or unsuccessful it was in its domain, its domain was just too far short of “ecology” for me to want to recommend it to all ecology graduate students.

      But if you wanted to say that all ecology grad students should read something *like* Hubbell’s book–something big and ambitious–then I’m totally on board with you. In population ecology, it might be Turchin’s Princeton Monograph. In conservation biology it’d be–well, I dunno, not being a conservation biologist, but I’m sure there’s something out there. But you get the picture.

  12. I enjoyed reading “Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas” last year. Definitely gave me some interesting viewpoints.

  13. At the risk of giving Brian a big head, I recommend that all of my students read Magurran & McGill [Eds] (2011) Biological Diversity: frontiers in measurement and assessment (OUP) as the clearest exposition of what can be both a deceptively simple and yet a hugely complex subject, i.e. how do we measure biodiversity?

  14. Patterns of Behavior, by Lorenz & Tinbergen. So much to be learned here, including how two men estranged by WWII partnered-up & won the Nobel Prize. Exposure to these men early in my career conveyed the necessity of living with nature before studying it. I have resided in the depths of the Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado since 2005, and I cannot tell you how much a difference that makes.

  15. Thank you for an interesting post – I used it to spark a very nice discussion with my lab group this afternoon. We had quite divergent ideas depending on the purpose of the book. If the goal is to provide a per-comprehensive PhD student something that will be “good for them” then more technical books and classics like Origin rise to the top. On the other hand, if the goal is to broaden perspectives and have fun doing it, then a book like one of EO Wilson’s many offerings, Silent Spring, or Desert Solitaire (I have not read this one, so it is on my list) are among the top picks.

  16. There should be absolutely zero debate about Ecological Detective. That is a definite. absolute. must. Far more important for a grad student to read than any other modeling or stats book. Beautiful book.

    • “There should be absolutely zero debate about Ecological Detective. That is a definite. absolute. must. Far more important for a grad student to read than any other modeling or stats book. ”

      Without wanting to deny that it’s an outstanding book any ecologist would benefit from reading, if it’s an “absolute must” what should we think of the many ecologists who’ve never read it? Including me?

      • Well, I would say that if you have fully developed your statistical repertoire, then a work such as this might provide you few insights you already do not possess. I really like the emphasis on “Detective,” though. I know many ecologists who treat statistics as a secondary element of their work; i.e., something to be applied to reveal what is already obvious in ones data. So, for folks with that kind of philosophy, or any student entering the field- this is a must-read. Statistics should be viewed as a living, breathing entity guiding one to discovery… not just a tool to confirm the obvious.

      • They’re missing out! I don’t know how much you would learn from it Jeremy, but I’m guessing you would have an appreciation for it and would likewise recommend it to grad students (maybe not as strongly as me, but still).

        In addition to hearing about which books are people’s most recommended, I’d also be curious to hear which ones people are most enthusiastic or passionate about. Are people recommending books just because they think it’s a good book in a particular category or because it is a truly exceptional classic (how I feel about ED)?

      • @Anonymous:

        “I’d also be curious to hear which ones people are most enthusiastic or passionate about.”

        I love the Origin, I had a blast reading it and thinking about it. Ok, some bits are a slog, but overall it’s terrific fun.

        My enthusiasm for textbooks isn’t of the same character as my enthusiasm for something like the Origin. But I love Cases’s Illustrated Guide, it’s a unique and very effective approach to the subject.

        I don’t know if anyone loves A Critique for Ecology, but you’re certainly going to feel *something* about it! Quite possibly angry disagreement. But you won’t be bored!

  17. I had a similar response to yours, Jeremy, about The Ecological Detective. I think it’s a good book but it’s not as clear to me why it’s essential. That said, I read it a long time ago and got lost in a bunch of places. I’ve started re-reading it again recently and really like some bits and am not as crazy about others. And if we’re just talking about books on modelling or statistics, I go back over and over to Ben Bolker’s book and Mixed Effects Models and Extension in Ecology by Zuur et al. and I have never returned to ED until recently.
    As for books I’m passionate about – probably the most fun I had reading an ecology book was Jim Brown’s Macroecology. I just loved it – it was an easy read, loaded with data and addressed questions I found interesting.
    And I am in the group that loves A Critique for Ecology – and I think it has been superficially dismissed as having the take-home message that ‘if it ain’t a linear regression then it has no value”. In my opinion, Rob Peter’s book was far more nuanced than that. Best, Jeff H

  18. Any consideration for Ages of Gaia (Lovelock)? The work presented concerning atmospheric analyses from ice cores was simply stunning. I once participated in a seminar where the group read it from cover to cover, and our discussions were about as lively as they get in a room of subdued scientists…

  19. I’d add in…

    Another take on the history of ecology would be Frank Golley’s “History of the Ecosystem Concept” – brings you through the development and coalescing of the idea into application via the IBP and LTER approaches.

    Emma Marris’s “Rambunctious Garden” is a great take on what nature and wild means today – an interesting perspective on today’s “ecological theater” (which might be an interesting book to include too)

  20. Great topic and thread . . . I agree with many of the books listed above. If I could boil down the recommendations to a very small handful that touch most if not all bases it would be

    – Origin of Species – Darwin lays it all out and every time I read it I find a new idea to test and am surprised with just how current the questions and approaches are.

    – The Demon Haunted World, Science as a candle in the dark ( Carl Sagan) . . . a compelling and wonderful book about what it means to do Science and what it means to become a scientist and understand the political forces against science .

    – Foundations of Ecology – yes, this is the foundation – introductory chapters are perfect quick reads.

    – Advice for a young investigator (Cajal) – brief and to the point. What it takes to succeed in science and reflections on all that is good and bad about our profession.

    – Macroecology (Jim Brown) – Short and to the point. Jim lays out a vision for how to do ecology in the era of big data.

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  22. I came across this blog by searching for books about ecology/evolution. I’ve read a few and was looking for some more. I agree with Ken Feeley on The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. I’ve read both and they were very good. The Beak of the Finch read very easy. The Song of the Dodo was a bit more tricky for me as a non native English speaker, it was still quite alright.

    I’d like to add two books of Tim Birkhead: Bird Sense and The Wisdom of Birds. I really enjoyed those. It might be a bit too much bird-related and less ecology but it’s still something an ecology student would enjoy reading

  23. For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be an ecologist. Unfortunately I never had the means to afford to finish a higher education. Now, I’m 40 years old and I can’t see myself back in college if it wouldn’t be to study this field. Coincidentally I was reading about the University of Calgary’s programs in Ecology just before I found this post. Maybe I will never be able to enroll for this university or if so, it would probably take long time until that. Instead I’m searching for books and learn as much as possible on my own. I will do it just for the sake of acquiring some knowledge about what fascinates me so much. I’m glad I found your blog!

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  25. I’m joining this conversation years late, but have to say — No books by Rene Dubos?! I read several of his books when I was a teenager interested in the science of ecology, and thanks to Dubos, I have “thought ecologically” about almost everything ever since. Dubos authored many books — take your pick — but one that influenced me deeply was “The Dreams of Reason: Science and Utopias.”

    And for a book that will broaden your horizons and challenge you to “think outside the box”, I recommend J. Allen Boone’s “Kinship with All Life.”

  26. Hi I’m enjoying this blog post + comment conversation 5 years after the fact, and in the middle of a global pandemic no less.
    With that I’d like to add, and know what you think, about Lynn Margulis’ books being added to this list. Her endosymbiotic theory changed our understanding of the evolution of life as we know it and her later work focused on symbiosis, from a tiny scale to a global one.

    I’d suggest “Symbiotic Planet” and Microcosmos.

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