Posted by: Jeremy Fox | March 27, 2012

What’s your favorite ecology textbook? (UPDATED)

What’s your favorite ecology textbook? Why?

I don’t have much to contribute here, because I only teach upper-level courses that don’t use textbooks. The last ecology textbook with which I have much personal experience is the 2nd edition of Begon, Harper, and Townsend (now Begon, Townsend, and Harper), which I learned from as an undergrad*. My supervisor Peter Morin used to swear by the famous, and famously massive, Ricklefs (now Ricklefs and Miller). Those two are probably the most advanced undergraduate ecology texts. But there are lots of choices out there.

Out of curiosity, I searched the Alibris textbooks section for the subject “ecology”. The results are, um, interesting; I hadn’t been aware that the definition of “textbook” (or “ecology”!) could be stretched quite so far. But for what it’s worth, the best-selling ecology textbook of any stripe on Alibris is the 2nd edition of Dodds and Whiles’ Freshwater Ecology. Don’t know that one; the aquatic ecology text on my shelf is Lampert and Sommer, because it’s pretty strong on concepts and on links to general ecology. The best-selling general ecology textbook on Alibris is the 7th edition of Smith and Smith’s Elements of Ecology. An earlier edition of Smith and Smith was used in an ecology course I TA’ed at Rutgers. I vaguely recall thinking Smith & Smith was weak on the conceptual side. You can’t cover applications (which Smith & Smith emphasize) at the expense of concepts, or without integrating your concepts and applications (I seem to recall that Smith and Smith included one random paragraph on “chaos theory” tossed into the middle of an otherwise-unrelated chapter…).  But that was long ago and I don’t really remember very well.

UPDATE: In terms of more advanced and specialized books, I should’ve mentioned that I love Case’s Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology for my upper-level population ecology and introductory mathematical modeling classes. The very strong emphasis on graphs and pictures illustrating the mathematics is unique, and a really effective way to teach math-phobic ecology students that math is just a tool for helping us think about ecology.

And in terms of graduate-level texts, I’m of course biased because Morin’s Community Ecology is basically Peter’s lecture notes for his wonderful graduate community ecology course, which I took as a grad student. Gary Mittelbach has a competing text coming out this spring. Glancing at the tables of contents suggests that the two books cover much of the same material with broadly similar organization. But that leaves plenty of scope for all sorts of differences. I’ll be curious to see how Gary’s book compares and might even do a comparative review on Oikos blog at some point.

Share your ecology textbook preferences in the comments.

Thanks to Jim Bouldin for the post suggestion.

*If you look up when the second edition of Begon, Harper, and Townsend was published, you will find that I am approximately eleventy bazillion years old.


  1. I have to say, I started with Gotelli’s Primer and it remains one of my favorites.

    • The other population ecology instructor at Calgary, Kyla Flanagan, recommends Gotelli’s Primer as background reading for the students. As I indicated in the updated post, I’m partial to Case’s Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology myself.

      • What about a textbook in ecology for sophmore high school studentes? Which one will you recommend?

  2. Hey if “The Lorax” is numero uno on that list, who am I to argue? The “mushrooms can save the world” book has to be higher than #11 though. I think we can all agree that’s a travesty.

    For general ecology I always favored Krebs’ book, and for general plant ecology, Barbour, Burke and Pitts (“Terrestrial Plant Ecology”). In the more specialized stuff I really liked Hugh Gauch’s “Multivariate Analysis in Community Ecology”. I got a lot out of that because I think he does a very good job of describing the underlying concepts behind different methods, metrics and indices described.

    • I have an old used edition of Krebs, which I grabbed solely because it was cheap. Never taught from it. I don’t like it as well as BHT, but it’s not really a fair comparison since my edition of Krebs is so much older. And I suspect my casual impression of Krebs’ book is colored, probably unduly so, by things he’s written in other venues. He’s (in)famously dismissive of the value of modern approaches to time series analysis in population ecology, a stance with which I strongly disagree.

      Don’t know Gauch. Peter Morin teaches multivariate ecological statistics from Pielou’s The Interpretation of Ecological Data, despite its quirks (swapping rows and columns compared to how pretty much everyone else arranges their data matrices, IIRC).

  3. My favorite is “Community Ecology” by Peter Morin. Both the first and the second edition are very instructive about mainstream cutting-edge ecological concepts in community ecology.

  4. I got (and still get!) a great deal of mileage out of Dick Neal’s “Introduction to Population Biology”, which does a great job of integrating classic population biology with population ecology. It also helped having the author as an instructor for the course. 🙂

    I also found John Vandermeer’s Population Ecology: First Principles to be incredibly useful, especially in its discussion of dynamics. I prefer it to “An Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology”, as I found the latter was kind of scattered in its approach, although Illustrated Guide covers a few more topics.

    Other than that, I’ve been impressed with Morin’s “community Ecology”, especially the new 2nd edition, and I recommend “Ecological Models and Data in R” by Ben Bolker to everyone who even shows a hint of interest in ecological statistics.

    • Bolker’s book is indeed an excellent (advanced) ecological statistics text. I much prefer it to Jim Clark’s Models for Ecological Data, because Bolker’s book is stronger on the conceptual/philosophical side of statistics, and because Ben’s such a good explainer. (Disclaimer: Ben Bolker’s a friend of mine)

  5. I like BHT, even though I came to it well after finishing my PhD (another example of getting something cos it was cheap), and Case is great for the reasons outlined above, but I really appreciate Roughgarden’s Primer of Ecological Theory as it’s coupled with code scripts that allow students to get hands on experience of the programming behind ecological and evolutionary models. The only possible drawback is that it’s based on Matlab, which not all students will have easy access to.

    I think Hilborn & Mangel’s “The Ecological Detective” deserves an honourable mention as well – it might not strictly count as a textbook (part of the Princeton Monograph series), but it gives great background to a range of statistical approaches highly relevant to ecology.

  6. A couple of seconds here for the Bolker and Hilborn and Mangel books. The former is invaluable if you work in R (or rather, flounder around in R).

  7. If you work in R and want to use computer labs to teach population and community ecology, Stevens’ A Primer of Ecology with R is really helpful–full of code for simulating and analyzing most every standard population and community ecology model, and some non-standard ones. The emphasis on coding the simulations and analyses necessarily comes at the expense of lengthy explanations of what they mean, so I don’t know that I’d use the book as the sole text for a population ecology class. But appropriately supplemented, it’s great. I just switched to computer labs in my population ecology class this year, and all the code for the labs is pulled from Stevens. The only unfortunate thing about the book is that there are a fair number of typos.

    • I used Stevens in a graduate seminar last year and had students apply the models to their own data. It was a fantastic way to get them (and me) to move beyond R as a statistical tool and explore other uses of the platform in an accessible way.

      • Great to hear a couple of recommendations for the Stevens’ and Bolker books. I keep meaning to make the effort to switch to R (although Matlab still does some things better ;).

  8. Along those lines, I found Zuur et al.’s “Mixed Effects Models and Extensions in Ecology With R” incredibly useful. It doesn’t delve too deeply into statistical theory, but its many applications towards real-world data and situations that one runs into in ecology was an eye-opener for me.

    • Hrm – this is quickly veering into the best book to teach Ecological Statistics…which, actually, may well be worthy of a new blogpost!

  9. One drawback to BHT, at least in my old edition: they spend a significant chunk of text propagating (and conflating!) two zombie ideas about disturbance, those of Hutchinson (1961) and Huston (1979).

  10. For undergraduates, the best text ever was Paul Colinvaux’s Ecology 2. Very well written. It is, unfortunately, out of print..

  11. I’m stuck teaching from the Krohne textbook this semester, and it’s awful.

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