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Möbius, Karl August


(b. Eilenburg, Germany, 7 February 1825; d. Berlin, Germany, 26 April 1908)


The son of Gottlob Möbius, a wheelwright, and the former Sophie Kaps, Möbius was trained as an elementary school teacher at the private training college in Eilenburg, and from 1844 to 1849 he taught at Seesen, in the Harz Mountains. His strong interest in science led him, despite difficulties, to Berlin, where he had to pass the Reifeprüfung (certificate examination) to enter the university. He studied natural science until 1853 under Johannes Müller, C. G. Ehrenberg, Eilhard Mitscherlich, E. H. Beyrich, and the zoologist A. A. H. Lichtenstein; for a time he was the latter’s assistant. Inspired by Humboldt’s writings, Möbius hoped to join scientific expeditions to the tropics. Since it appeared that the first opportunity would arise in Hamburg, he took a position there in 1853 as a teacher of natural science at the Johanneum grammar school. In 1855 he married Helene Meyer, sister of the zoologist and philosopher Jürgen-Bona Meyer. He soon joined the administration of the Hamburg Museum of Natural History and in 1863 was a cofounder of the Hamburg zoo. Möbius was responsible for the construction of Germany’s first public aquarium.

From 1860 Möbius carried out regular investigations of the fauna of the Kieler Bucht; the first volume of his Fauna der Kieler Bucht appeared in 1865. In the introduction to this work he set forth a program and methodology for modern ecology. The topography and variations in depth, the plant and animal life of the Kieler Bucht were characterized. The concept of “life community” (“Lebensgemeinschaft” or “Biocönose”) was introduced, although Möbius did not define it more precisely until 1877. Through his scientific connections, Möbius was appointed to the chair of zoology at the University of Kiel in 1868. The following year, on a commission from the Prussian government, he traveled along the coasts of France and England to investigate the possibility of promoting mussel and oyster breeding on the German coasts. During the succeeding years he took part in further marine biological research expeditions to the North Sea and Baltic Sea. In 1874 Möbius’ wish to visit the tropics was fulfilled; he joined an expedition to Mauritius and the Seychelles, during which he studied chiefly marine fauna and coral reefs. His Die Auster and die Austernwirtschaft (1877) contains a clear definition of the concept of “Biocönose.”

In 1881 a zoology institute built according to Möbius’ plans was opened at Kiel. Its museum was for decades considered a model for such establishments. Möbius left Kiel in 1887 to become director of the new natural history museum in Berlin. He considered his chief task there to be the creation of a large and impressive collection. In 1901 he presided over the International Congress of Zoology at Berlin.

Möbius’ scientific work was extensive and very broad in scope. The major portion was devoted to marine biology, including applied research on invertebrates and fishery biology. He also studied the formation of pearls and investigated the biology and anatomy of the whale. Of special scientific importance are his studies on the Foraminifera and the related discovery that the Eozoon canadense, which had been considered a living creature, is actually a mineral aggregate. Also of value are Möbius’ works on species and the theory of evolution, on animal geography and nomenclature, on animal psychology, on the administration of museums, and on ornithology.


A complete bibliography is included in Friedrich Dahl, “Karl August Möbius. Ein kurzes Lebensbild, nach authentischen Quellen entworfen,” in Zoologische Jahrbücher, supp. no. 8 (1905), 1–22, with four potraits. See also obituaries by R. von Hanstein, in Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 23 (1908), 361–373; H. Conwentz, in Schriften der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Danzig, n.s. 12 (1909), xviii–xx; and C. Matzdorff, in Monatshefte für den Naturwissenschaftlichen Unterricht, 2 (1909), 433–448; and L. Gebhardt, Die Ornithologen Mitteleuropas (Giessen, 1964).

Hans Querner

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