Scientific detective work has established that a gardener at Woburn Abbey conducted one of the earliest ecological experiments, which later became an important influence on Charles Darwin.
For years, historians and biographers had puzzled over a reference in Darwin's seminal 1859 work The Origin of Species, which set out the theory of evolution, to a study of grassland plants.
That research, said Darwin, showed how greater diversity among grasses grown in experimental plots led to greater plant abundance. From this Darwin developed his "principle of divergence", which was a building block of the grand theory, because it suggests that natural selection leads to new varieties of a species arising in the same location.
Despite the reference, scientists had puzzled over which experiment was being described, because there was no further reference to it in the book. But today in the journal Science a team of British-led researchers describe how they tracked down the missing details. They discovered that George Sinclair, head gardener to the Duke of Bedford in the early 19th century, conducted the experiment in a garden at Woburn Abbey.
References to the study appear in the first edition of the book Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis, published in 1816, and the results were published in the third edition, published in 1826 – pre-dating The Origin of the Species by 33 years.
Dr Andy Hector from the Natural Environmental Research Council Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College, London, said: "This pushes the link between community and ecosystem ecology back to the birth of the subject, before it even had a name. We've now found the experimental work, since forgotten, that inspired these ideas, and, to the best of our knowledge, this work at Woburn Abbey is the first ecological experiment."