Darwin, in his Origin of Species of 1859, referred to an experiment investigating the biology of grassland plants that showed how a greater diversity of grasses planted in experimental plots was responsible for greater production of plant matter. This subject, the relationship between biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems, is currently one of the hottest in ecology.
But he didn't leave any clues as to where or when this experiment was done, and the source of his knowledge remained forgotten.
Now, writing in the journal Science published today*1, Andy Hector of Imperial College, London, UK, and Rowan Hooper of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan, describe their successful hunt for the lost details.
They discovered that George Sinclair, head gardener to the Duke of Bedford in the early nineteenth century, carried out the experiments in a garden at Woburn Abbey in South East England.
His experimental garden was detailed in the 1816 first edition of the book Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis and his results were published in the third edition of 1826. The Origin of Species was published in 1859.
The experimental garden he laid out compared the performance of different species and mixtures of grasses and herbs growing on different types of soil. A plan of the garden lists the plant mixtures grown in 242 plots, each two feet square.
Dr Hector of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College, said:
"Some ecologists have said that Darwin was the first to state the relationship, based on a line in the Origin of Species, but our historical research reveals a much more solid base."
"This pushes back the link between community and ecosystems ecology back to the birth of the subject, before it even had a name in fact*2. We've no
Contact: Tom Miller
Imperial College London