Senckenberg Research


Senckenberg By the sea

The location Wilhelmshaven was established in 1928. Founded as a branch under the name ‘Senckenberg - Forschungsstelle für Meeresgeologie’ by Prof. Dr. Rudolf Richter, at the time head of the Geology Department and Professor of Geology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main. In 1929, the name of the station was expanded by ‚und Meerespaläontologie’ and was later briefly called in german ‚Senckenberg am Meer’ or accordingly in english ‚Senckenberg by the Sea’. The idea was to build a permanent research facility at the North Sea, dedicated to the study of recent geological and palaeontological processes in order to better understand the fossil record. Following the motto ‘The present is the key to the past’, the principle of actualism was applied systematically with respect to the processes in the shallow marine North Sea. Two new fields of research were born: actuogeology and actuopalaeontology.



The research of Rudolf Richter who, as section member of the Palaeontological Department since 1919, regularly carried out palaeontological and geological research in the North Sea, took the Senckenberg marine research on a unique course. Gradually, he developed a programmatic actuopalaeontology and –geology based on the description and understanding of recent sea floor processes. These serve as a key to understand past processes which palaeontology and geology is faced only in form of relicts and the fossil record. With the appointment of Rudolf Richter as associate professor of geology and paleontology in 1925 this approach gained the necessary dispersal. Probably since that time, but certainly since 1927, Rudolf Richter sought for a permanent location for a marine geological Senckenberg station on the North Sea. The choice fell on Wilhelmshaven.

Gründer Rudolf Richter

Wilhelm Krüger (links) in the Wadden Sea investgating epifauna (photo taken by F. Trusheim, provided by courtesy of H.-E. Reineck).

From right Rudolf Richter, Wilhelm Krüger and Heinrich
 Schütte at a meeting in Wilhelmshaven in the year 1925 (unknown photographer, received by I. Kress).

 Location Wilhelmshaven

 Rudolf Richter describes his reasoning in his report to the then museum director F. Drevermann. In term of actuality and clarity there is nothing to add today: „Die anderen Orte erwiesen sich, wie vorauszusehen, als wenig geeignet. Nur Wilhelmshaven bietet Aussicht, immer ohne Kosten (!) auf See zu kommen und draußen zu wohnen...Dazu die Anlehnung an andere Einrichtungen. Von der neuen Wasserbauversuchsanstalt muß ich Ihnen einmal vorschwärmen; sie ist in Zukunft ein neuer Anziehungspunkt für Wattexkursionen....In Betracht kommt ein massiver Ziegelbau...Zur Zeit als Stall usw. vermietet und verbraucht....Sehr günstig ist die Lage: unmittelbar am Hafen ! einem noch auszuholzenden Wäldchen, das der Marine gehört und zu etwaiger Erweiterung zur Verfügung steht.“ [The other places turned out, predictably, as less suitable. Only Wilhelmshaven has the perspective to access the sea always free of charge (!) and to live there ... Additionally the link to other institutions. I need to enthuse about the new hydraulic building research facility; a new attraction for excursions in the future. We can consider a massive brick building ... currently rented and used as stables, etc. .... the situation is very favourable: directly at the harbour ... in a grove yet to be cleared, belonging to the German Navy and available for extension.]

Besides the ideal location with direct access to the sea and the tidal flats, an important factor was the interest of the German Navy, in particular the ‘Marineoberbaurat’ Dr. hc William Krüger, who was aware of the importance of sedimentological processes for port construction activities, added by geological self-interest. Thus the link to the naval command was established. Admiral Hans Zenker, then the head of the German Navy, actively supported the project. This explains the positive statement of the responsible ‘Marinewerft Konteradmiral’ and ‘Oberwerftdirektor’ Walther Franz (by letter on January 7, 1928 to R. Richter): „Ich habe die für die Werft in Frage kommenden Stellen angewiesen, beschleunigt alle Einzelheiten zu prüfen und sage hiermit die Unterstützung der Werft in jeder Beziehung zu.“ [I instructed all relevant authorities to rapidly asses all the details, and herein guarantee full support by the shipyard in all respects.] 


 The foundation and the establishing phase

 The start took place on the lock island. A former stable of the German Navy was the nucleus and the building was considerably expanded after the Second World War. Back in the early months of 1928 the small brick building on the lock island that was previously used as a stable, was developed by simple means to become a laboratory. On 1st of April 1928 the palaeontologist Ferdinand Trusheim was appointed, funded by ‘Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft’, followed in the same year by the museum assistant Albert Schwarz. The latter took over the local management in 1929 in the function of an actuogeologist as addition to the actuopalaeontologist F. Trusheim. A. Schwarz also organised and led the first expansion, while in 1930 F. Trusheim became an assistant in Würzburg, and later worked in the petroleum industry. A. Schwarz worked until 1934 and then moved into the private sector. That same year Walter Häntzschel took over the management of the institution. He contributed significantly to the fields of shallow marine sedimentology but also to actuopalaeontology. Thereby he united the previously divided geological and palaeontological aspects in one person. In the establishment process such versatility was needed and necessary. W. Häntzschel left Senckenberg in 1938 to become a custodian at the geological museum in Dresden.

Senckenberg Institut 1928  Senckenberg Institut 1929  
The first expansion bulding 1929, to the right the  „horse stable“ (photo F. Trusheim, provided by H.-E. Reineck)
 Brick building („horse stable“) on the lock island (photo F. Trusheim, received from H.-E. Reineck).

 Pre-war years and collapse

 In 1938, Wilhelm Schäfer became head of ‘Senckenberg am Meer’. He was zoologist, but also had a strong penchant for artistic design. In the "era Schäfer" the actuopalaeontology and the facies analysis were particularly addressed. In the short time until Schäfer’ military service obligation in 1940 he published substantial papers such as the ‘Fazieskunde des deutschen Wattenmeeres’ (1941). Already in the winter of 1940 the institution was partly destroyed by bombs and the German army administration took over the building. During this time the library and equipment were still secured in the basement of the building, but the entire inventory was lost in April 1945 after troops of the united forces had occupied the building for several months and when the vacant house was plundered afterwards several times.



The years 1946-1954 represented a major dry spell. In 1947, William Schäfer and Konrad Lüders began with the expansion and the reestablishment of the institute by using furniture and laboratory equipment from the German Navy yard. After the currency reform in 1948, there was no fixed budget for ‘Senckenberg am Meer’ any more, since the ‘Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft’ had not enough funds. It was also unclear at this time whether the Senckenberg site could and should be held in Wilhelmshaven at all. In this time of organization and deprivation Wilhelm Schäfer tirelessly published a series of actuopalaeontological observations on organisms of the shallow sea, thereby securing the scientific substance.
When in 1954, Senckenberg was incorporated in the federal-state-funding after the Königsteiner Abkommen, the actual reconstruction began. That same year, Hans-Erich Reineck was appointed as geologist. In 1959, the institute building was complemented by a living quarter, and the zoologist Gotthard Richter was hired as an assistant. From 1961 there was a separate budget for the "Astarte". This phase ended when William Schäfers departure. On 24th of March 1961 he was appointed as director of the Senckenberg institution by the ‘Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft’.


After the departure of William Schäfer to Frankfurt, Hans-Erich Reineck became head of ‚Senckenberg am Meer’. Gotthard Richter headed the section of marine zoology from 1961 to 1963. During this time the largest expansion both in terms of the staff and the building took place. This expansion had become financially possible due to the economic boom in Germany, and was supported by a convincing and concise scientific program. While to this date, the actuopalaeontology was the main field of research, the focus now shifted to the investigation of entire facies complexes. Of main interest were the beach, foreshore and muddy shelf towards deeper waters. The description of a depositional system requires an interdisciplinary team. This was first established with the help of the German Research Foundation. In the years 1968, 1969 and 1970, four scientists were appointed: Günther Hertweck (marine palaeontologist), Jürgen Dörjes (marine biologist), Sybille Gadow (sediment petrography) and Friedrich Wunderlich (marine geologist). Added to this was technical staff. Already in 1966 a large extension was funded by the ‘Stiftung Volkswagenwerk’, complemented in 1972 with funding from the Ministry of Education and Science. The scientific return of this phase is particularly characterized by team work, carried out both in the North Sea and the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain) and overseas (North America, Taiwan). The offshore work in the North Sea was supported very much through the construction of the new research vessel ‘Senckenberg’ in 1976. Since then, Frankfurt's interest in the biology of the North Sea has risen significantly.

Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 1970  Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 1992
 Institute bulding in 1970 with expansion building from 1966 (photo taken by M. Türkay).  Extended new building in the year 1992 (photo taken by M. Türkay).

With the appointment of Burghard W. Flemming as head of ‘Senckenberg am Meer’ in 1984, a strong emphasis was laid on the quantification of large scale depositional processes. The tradition of the integrated research on processes on the sea floor was refined considerably. This phase also includes similar studies in the marine sedimentary petrography and palaeontology, which also consider a wider scope. Also the study of large-and small-scale dynamics was in focus. In the marine biology this concerns particularly the study of time-series for the quantification of environmental trends and the dependence of benthic communities from environmental parameters such as sediment input and nutrient regime. This aspect of large scale dynamics has since characterised the research of all units of the Wilhelmshaven Institute.

 Moving to the ‘Fliegerdeich’

  With the foundation of the ‘Deutschen Zentrums für Marine Biodiversitätsforschung’ (DZMB) another department was established at the Wilhelmshaven site. The DZMB is headed by Prof. Dr. Pedro Martinez-Arbizu. While research at ‘Senckenberg am Meer’ so far focused on the North Sea, the DZMB added a global aspect of the biodiversity assessment. This significant expansion also led to spatial consequences. The old building had become too small and no longer met modern requirements. With the help of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research three buildings on the ‘Fliegerdeich’ in possession of the German Navy were found and assigned to Senckenberg for use. The transformation to modern institute buildings could be made by a financial commitment from the federal government, the state of Niedersachsen, the city of Wilhelmshaven and the ‘Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft’. Both departments were able to move in the new facility in November 2003. Since 2007, the location ‘Senckenberg am Meer’ is a member of the Nordwest Verbundes Meeresforschung, a pool of expertise of marine research institutions in Bremen and Niedersachsen.

Abteilung_Meeresforschung  DZMB und Gerätehalle (in blau)

Rudolf Richter Building situated at the Fliegerdeich hosting the Marine Research Department.
DZMB (Eduard Rüppell Building) and equipment hall (in blue).


Current Phase

 In 2010 André Freiwald was appointed as head of the Department of Marine Research in conjunction with a professorship for marine geology at the University of Bremen, where he is affiliated to the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM). Freiwald and his research group explore Recent and Cenozoic biosedimentary systems of non-tropical shelf areas. Main research focus is dedicated towards carbonate-producing marine ecosystems, such as rhodolith occurrences and cold-water coral reefs with respect to carbonate production and degradation budgets, species composition, and biotic / abiotic interactions with the environment. While at Wilhelmshaven predominantly recent processes and geo-ecosystems are targeted, the Bremer MARUM biosedimentary systems are tested for their suitability as palaeoenvironmental recorder to answer paloceanographic and -climatic issues. Thus, the original actuopalaeontological founding idea of 1928 finds its sequel in times of rapidly changing environmental conditions and their impact on the environment and society in the coastal regions.