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The Legacy of Robert Macarthur: From Geographical Ecology to Macroecology

James H. Brown
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1383283 333-344 First published online: 20 May 1999


Despite his tragically short life (1930–1972) and brief career, Robert MacArthur was perhaps the most influential ecologist of the 20th Century. With the possible exceptions of Charles Elton and Eugene Odum, no other ecologist had as much influence during his lifetime or left such an enduring legacy. MacArthur's influence stems not only from his substantial and frequently cited published works but also from his direct personal interactions and collaborations with contemporary scientists, especially young people. He combined his facility for mathematics and his knowledge of natural history to develop a body of ecological theory that set the direction of evolutionary ecology during his career and in the decades since his death. Much of his work was inspired by very general statistical patterns of abundance, distribution, body size, and diversity of species. To explain these patterns, he developed simple mathematical and graphical models. In the 25 years since MacArthur's death, the limitations of his models have been revealed, but the empirical patterns that inspired them remain poorly understood. Accumulation of new data has allowed these statistical “macroecological” patterns to be quantified more precisely and has shown them to be nearly universal. They remain vexing puzzles waiting for solution—manifestations of general ecological laws that are still waiting to be discovered.

Key words
  • ecology
  • Robert MacArthur
  • macroecology
  • mathematical models
  • theoretical ecology