Charles Sutherland Elton, the father of English animal ecology, was born in Manchester and educated at Liverpool College and New College, Oxford graduating with first class honours in zoology in 1922. Elton's interest in natural history was inspired by his elder brother Geoffrey and he devoted his career at Oxford University to turning natural history into the science of ecology, applying the scientific method to studying the lives of animals in their natural habitats and interrelationships with their surroundings. In 1921, while still an undergraduate, he acted as assistant to Julian Huxley on an Oxford University expedition to Spitsbergen, making an ecological survey of local animal life, a project he continued on three subsequent Arctic expeditions in 1923, 1924 and 1930. In 1927 he published his classic work Animal Ecology, outlining important principles of ecological studies such as food chains and the food cycle, the size of food, niches and the 'pyramid of numbers'. His Arctic experience led to a biological consultancy with the Hudson's Bay Company, 1926-1931 which enabled him to study fluctuations in the populations of furbearing animals, and this in turn led to research on the fluctuations in Britain's mouse and vole populations. In 1932 Elton established his Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford which became a centre for the collection of data on variations in animal numbers and a research institute in terrestrial ecology. In the same year he became the founding editor of the Journal of Animal Ecology. In 1936 Oxford University appointed him Reader in Animal Ecology and Corpus Christi College elected him a Senior Research Fellow.
During the Second World War the Bureau was assigned to protect Britain's vital foodstuffs by finding effective methods of controlling rats, mice and rabbits, under the Agricultural Research Council. After the war Elton embarked on a comprehensive survey of animals and their interrelationships on Oxford University's Wytham estate, 1945-1967. On retirement he studied species diversity in tropical rainforest during several trips to tropical America. His interests in conservation and problems in the management of nature reserves led to much advisory work for the Nature Conservancy which was established in 1949. Among his later books were The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958) and The Pattern of Animal Communities (1966).
Elton received many honours and awards in recognition of his contribution to ecology. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1953 and awarded the Society's Darwin Medal in 1970. He received the American Ecological Society's Eminent Ecologist Award (the first for a non-American) in 1961, the Linnean Society's Gold Medal in 1967, the John and Alice Tyler Award for Ecology in 1976 and the Edward W. Browning Award for Conserving the Environment in 1977. Elton died in Oxford in 1991.
There is important biographical and autobiographical material, records of Elton's expeditions, fieldwork and surveys including photographs, his natural history notebooks, and correspondence.
Section A, Biographical and autobiographical, brings together records of Elton's career, honours and awards, publications, family letters, and the autobiographical writings of his later years and the material he assembled in connection with this activity. Amongst this assembled material are records relating to the Bureau of Animal Population, Elton's university teaching and his work for the Nature Conservancy.
Section B, Notebooks, presents a sequence of natural history notebooks which Elton kept for a period of over seventy years, 1914-1987. There are also two 'precis' notebooks from the 1920s used for notes on the literature, meetings of scientific societies, miscellaneous information and ideas, and the 'Corpus Christi Garden Book' which Elton kept, 1938-1945, during his Garden Mastership of the College.
Section C, Expeditions, presents records, principally diaries and photographs, of the four Arctic expeditions, 1921-1930, three visits to the Mols laboratory and nature reserve, Femmoller, Denmark, 1953-1962, and four visits to tropical America, 1965-1973. In respect of the 1921 Spitsbergen expedition, for which no contemporary diary of Elton's survives, Elton prepared, 1978-1983, a general account with photographs, in three volumes (ring-binders), specifically with archival deposit in mind.
Section D, Fieldwork and surveys, presents records of an ecological survey at Leckford, Hampshire, 1938-1939, and of ash bark beetle (Hylesinus fraxini) research carried out in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire and at the Bureau of Animal Population, Oxford, 1948-1964. There are also seven photograph albums covering a wide range of locations and habitats including Leckford, Wytham Woods and Nature Conservancy areas, 1927-1963.
Section E, Correspondence, includes a small number of substantial exchanges with colleagues who began their research careers with Elton in Oxford, notably R.S. Miller, 1951-1989, and C. Overgaard Nielsen, 1952-1967. The exchange with P.W. Crowcroft, 1980-1990, is less substantial but relates to Crowcroft's history of the Bureau of Animal Population, Elton's Ecologists (Chicago University Press, 1991). Also of interest is Elton's correspondence with the Russian ecologist N.I. Kalabukhov and colleagues with whom he established contact in connection with the later work on the ecology of the tropical rainforest.