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September 18: A Pioneering Ecologist

September 18, 2013

Bronx-born Lawrence Slobodkin, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook who founded the school’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology and helped develop ecology into a modern, mathematically-attuned science, died at 81 on this date in 2009. “One of his most influential books, Growth and Regulation of Animal Populations (1961),” wrote Carol Kaesuk Yoon in a New York Times obituary, “had a pivotal role in making mathematical and conceptual modeling an integral part” of his science. “But what is probably his most famous paper is a grand overview of how terrestrial ecosystems work, published in 1960 and still so widely discussed that it has become known by several nicknames,” most widely as “The World Is Green.” The paper established that herbivore populations are not kept in check by food availability — the world, after all, is green — but by predators, parasites and pathogens, an insight that stimulated research into the food web and much more. Slobodkin taught at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole for many years in the 1960s, and was a visiting scholar at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, and Weizman Institute in Israel.

“There’s a need to step way back and see the big patterns of the world’s ecosystems. Nobody else had tried to do that before. Nobody else had ever asked the question like that.” —Michael Rosenzweig