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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow The ascent of ecology in Sweden arrow Svenska protoekologer under 1800-talet

Swedish protoecologists of the 19th century

Göran Wahlenberg (1780–1851), the last holder of the Linnaean Chair at Uppsala, was one of the more prominent protoecologists. Wahlenberg studied the conections between the prevalence of plants, soils, bedrock, and meteorological and hydrological factors, that is, what we would call today the ‘autecology’ of plants. His studies anticipated ecological plant geography; they were contemporary with but independent of those carried out by the international pioneer in this field, Alexander von Humboldt.

Another of the great naturalists of the 19th century, Sven Nilsson, also contributed to the further development of protoecology. He was a pioneer in animal geography and carried out trail-blazing studies of the history of the areal distribution of animals. Among other things, he examined how different animal species had migrated to the Scandinavian Peninsula after the last Ice Age. Nilsson was also one of those who took the initiative in an emerging collaboration between zoologists and hunters that turned out to have a considerable impact during the 1800s. His widely disseminated Skandinavisk Fauna (Scandinavian Fauna), the most comprehensive fauna since Linnaeus’ Fauna Suecica and virtually a national monument in the field, had a subtitle En handbok för jägare och zoologer (A Handbook for Hunters and Zoologists). He was also instrumental in establishing the Swedish Association of Hunters. All of this contributed greatly to the development of scientific game research, and the hunting-based zoological literature that blossomed during the 19th century proved to be a rich forum for protoecological observations.

One of the most advanced protoecologists was Hampus von Post (1822–1911). He was first educated in the military and served in the cavalry before changing careers at the age of thirty, taking over the operation of Reijmyre Glassworks, only to wind up employed as a teacher of chemistry at Ultuna Agricultural Institute outside Uppsala. His research was heavily empirical, and he “hated speculation.” As early as the 1840s he presented to a student association in Uppsala a program for the study of plant geography that could serve as a basic research program for any department of ecology anywhere today.

The breakthrough of protoecological ideas also affected the museum world. In the 1870s Gustaf Kolthoff, a self-educated zoologist and taxidermist, together with the young artist Bruno Liljefors, started a ‘biological museum’ in Uppsala. The traditional way of exhibiting stuffed animals had been strictly systematic. Kolthoff wanted, instead, to present animals in their natural environments, and with the help of Liljefors’ background paintings, he created an illusion of this. The museum was an immediate success and was followed by several similar displays in Stockholm, Åbo, and Södertälje.

In the 1890s the Swedish Hydrographic-Biological Commission took measures to do something about the lack of understanding of ‘the economy of nature.’ By combining zoological, botanical, and hydrological research we would attain a greater understanding of the contexts of nature.

However, none of these prominent natural scientists or institutions called their studies ‘ecological.’ It was not until a few years into the 20th century that some scientists started to use the term ‘ecology’ in their publications. This is the beginning of what we could call the modern history of ecology in Sweden. But before we move on to these first modern ecologists, we will take a brief look at how traditional natural history encountered competition from a new type of biology that was more experimentally and anatomically oriented.