Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards


Compiled by Jeremy Chester (December 1999)

Wynne-Edwards Biography
Time Line

For 68 years, Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards was a major contributor in the development of the field of ecology. Known as "Wynne" by his colleagues, he will be remembered as one of the primer natural historians and innovative ecological thinkers (Newton, 1999).

Born in 1906 in Leeds England Wynne-Edwards was the last of six children. Interest was sparked in the area of natural history by his father who was the headmaster of Leeds Grammar School. The major area of focus for the young Wynne-Edwards was in the field of botany. He earned a first-class degree in Zoology at Oxford, where he developed an interest of marine biology. In his spare time, he mapped out all of the starling roosts in the region. This marked his first independent ornithological work. He sailed across the Atlantic many times to study sea birds, earning him the Walker Prize of the Boston Natural History Society. This honor established him as one of the pioneers of marine ornithology (Newton, 1999).

In 1946, Edwards took up a prestigious position as Regius Chair in Zoology in Aberdeen, Britian. This position allowed him to compile a very large and successful zoology department until his retirement 28 years later in 1974 . In 1950, Edwards was part of the Baird Expedition to northeast Baffin Island, here he wrote an account of the birds and a note on a colony of Northern Fulmars at Cape Searle. 1962 marked Edwards key scientific achievement in the form of his 650 page Treatise, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour (Wynne-Edwards, 1965). Wynne-Edwards was recognized with many honors and awards before his retirement in 1974. He died in 1997 at the age of 91 (Newton, 1999).


Wynne-Edwards argued that social behavior is a mechanism for excluding the surplus of potential breeders, above the quota that the habitat can carry. Social behaviors that have evolved to regulate reproduction include territoriality and social rank. Possession of different forms of personal real estate at other times of the year, for example roosting sites, allow an established quota in, and keeps surplus out. Social conventions that maintain established territories determine that only a few individuals within the population will have the opportunity to breed, thus eliminating a surplus of possible breeders. Thus, the population will be maintained at densities suited to the available resourses. Similarly, social dominance regulates reproduction, maintaining densities that optimally exploit available resources. An individual's rank within a population determines its survival rate and reproductive success. If food were short, high-ranking individuals would be able to eat while lower-ranking individuals starved (Dewsbury, 1990). From this theory came the idea of group selection.

To support these observations, Wynne-Edwards theorized that in addition to individual selection, group selection was a necessary evolutionary construct. Group selection is based on groups of individuals that purposely control their rate of consumption of resources and their rate of breeding to benefit the group over the indidual, ensuring that the group would not go extinct (Stiling, 1996). Individual selection generates populations with traditionally selfish individuals who would overexploit the existing resources and die out. Wynne-Edwards (1965) points out that natural populations tend to preserve a continuing state of balance, usually fluctuating to some extent but in the end operating at a stable and regulated level. This argument seems to offer a reasonable theory; however, it has some major flaws and has been criticized.

One conflict with the concept of group selection is gene mutation. Stiling (1996) points out that a mutation may lay six eggs for instance instead of two. If there are enough resources for these six individuals to survive then the genetic tendency to lay six eggs will be passed on. It would not take many generations of six egg-laying individuals to over exploit the resources.

A second area of conflict is immigration. Even if an existing population of birds has no mutations or cheaters to the two-egg system, individuals from close local populations could migrate in. These new individuals to the population may not be operating on the two-egg system, again taking over the resources by producing more than two offspring (Stiling, 1996).

Finally, nature is dynamic and always changing since there are fluctuations in weather and human intervention, a population would have to be able to estimate the available resources the previous breeding season. A stable population must be able to predetermine the survival rate of their offspring in order to produce the optimal number of young. This would prove practically impossible to achieve.

Time Line
1906 Birth
1930 Post at McGill University in Montreal
1946 Regius Chair in Zoology in Aberdeen
1950 Baird Expedition to Northeast Baffin Island
1952 Wrote an account of the birds
1952 Wrote note on colony of Northeast Fulmars
1959 Awarded honorary fellowship in American Ornithological Society
1962 Published Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour
1962 Group Selection
1965 Awarded fellowship in the Cooper Ornithological Society
1977 Awarded fellowship in the British Ecological Society
1980 Awarded fellowship in the Institute of Biology
1997 Death at age of 91

Dewsbury, D.A. 1990. Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses

Meffe, G. and Carroll, R. 1997.

Principles of Conservation Biology

. Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Newton, I. 1999. In Memoriam: V.C. Wynne-Edwards, 1906-1997. Auk, 116 (3): 815-816

Stiling P. D. 1996. Ecology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Wynne-Edwards V.C. 1965. Self-Regulating Systems in Populations of Animals. Science. 147. 1543-1548.

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