Senckenberg Research

Biodiversity and the Dynamics of the 'System Earth': The geosciences at Senckenberg

The Tibetan Plateau is studied by several Senckenberg scientists.
The Tibetan Plateau is studied by several Senckenberg scientists. Copyright: NASA



One hundred years ago, Alfred Wegener gave his lecture on continental drift and the formation of the continents at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. The dynamics of the 'System Earth' have remained a focal point of research at Senckenberg to this day. What role did the planet's geodynamic processes play in bringing about life? Finding answers to this question represents the basic aim of geoscientific research at Senckenberg.

Since Wegener broached his pioneering ideas, the geosciences have played a decisive role in research on the formation of planets and the development of living beings. They also make important contributions when it comes to natural hazard risk assessment, the evaluation of fossil and mineral resources and describing the history of our climate. Today, geoscientific research involves not only the Earth's crust, its mantle and its core, but especially their extensive interactions with the atmosphere, the biosphere and the hydrosphere. The scientists take a variety of time scales into consideration, ranging from that covering the entire formation and development of our planet to the period in which humans have evolved.

Petrified wood: Isotope geochemistry revealed that the Chemnitz petrified forest is 291 million years old.
Petrified wood: Isotope geochemistry
revealed  that the Chemnitz petrified forest
is 291 Million years old.

The Earth: a dynamic system

Senckenberg aims to describe the dynamics of the total 'System Earth' with the aim of meeting the demands being made by increasingly interdisciplinary approaches to science. To this end, we have concentrated our research on three core topics:

  • The interactions between the Earth's surface and the biosphere
  • The way the Earth has developed and early environmental conditions
  • The way the human race has developed in the course of major climatic fluctuations of the past few million years

Multifaceted: the Research Museum

One of the strengths of a modern research museum such as Senckenberg is its capacity to combine a variety of methods: The researchers use innovative analytical approaches such as isotopic geochemistry for dating or 3D computer tomography for high-resolution morphological analysis of fossils. At the same time they make use of and maintain geoscientific collections and research stations such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Messel with its unique stock of fossils. For instance, Senckenberg scientists were able to show that anomalously high water temperatures in the Pacific (the 'El Niño' effect) that prevailed 47 million years ago had an influence on the climate and the development of Central European ecosystems.


GELNHAUSEN River Ecology and Conservation WILHELMSHAVEN DZMB Marine Research GÖRLITZ Botany Zoology Soil Zoology WEIMAR Palaeontology Quarternary and Taxonomy of Insects Phylogenetic Systematics Information Center Entomology MÜNCHEBERG DRESDEN Museum of Zoology and Geology Museum of Mineralogy BIK-F Biodiversity Dynamics and Climate Adaptation and Climate Evolution and Climate Knowledge Transfer Data and Modelling Centre Laboratory Centre FRANKFURT AM MAIN Marine Zoology Palaeoanthropology and Messel Research Botany and Molecular Evolution Terrestrial Zoology Palaeontology and Historical Geology
Core Area Participation no Participation

The diagram above displays the degree of participation of the Senckenberg research departments in the research field "Biodiversity and Earth System Dynamics". Click on the department name to view its webpages.



Research activity highlights


Dating the Brocken granite

 Brocken granite and antenna on the summit.

For many geoscientific questions it is important to know how old rocks are. A team of researchers including Senckenberg scientists was able to show that the rock that forms the peak of the Brocken mountain in central Germany is about 293 million years old. Based on the age of the Brocken rock, some far-reaching geological conclusions can be drawn. more

Studying early Man and his Relatives

Significance of Greece

Research has been going on for decades on the origin of the human species, and it is still the subject of intensive study. Often enough, surprising discoveries are made. Who were the first Europeans? When did they arrive? What does the family tree of the Neandertals look like? What sort of interactions took place between the first modern humans and the last of the Neandertals? These are just a few of the questions that remain the subject of lively debate. more


Grazing Lands in Central Asia: interactions between landscape history, climate and land use

Alpine mats of Tibet

Increasingly severe environmental problems can only be understood and solved through interdisciplinary approaches. Broadly based research infrastructures are needed for this. In Central Asia, scientists are involved in several joint projects with the aim of reconstructing the historical development of the grazing lands. more

Fossil Ants from the Messel Pit

Queen of the giant ant Titanomyrma simillimum from Messel.

Ants represent the most successful group of the social insects. They comprise over 14,000 species. Their total biomass is enormous - several times that of mammals in areas such as the Amazonian rainforests. Without doubt, ants are extremely important components of ecosystems. Some of their predecessors have been preserved in fossil form in the Messel Pit. They help researchers to answer various questions about the way in which biodiversity has developed. more