Semper, Carl Gottfried

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(b. Altona, Germany, 6 July 1832: d. Würzburg, Germany, 29 May 1893)

zoology, ecology.

Semper’s father was a manufacturer; his uncle was the famous architect Gottfried Semper, Carl first studied engineering at Hannover (1851–1854) but eventually chose to become a naturalist and explorer. Thus he studied zoology, histology, and comparative anatomy (particularly of the invertebrates) at the University of Würzburg under Koelliker, Leydig, and Gegenbaur. His thesis (1856) dealt with the anatomy and physiology of the pulmonate snails. From 1857 to 1865 he traveled in Europe and then in the eastern tropics.

Except for a year (1862) on the Palau Islands of Babelthaup and Peleliu, Semper devoted the period from December 1858 to May 1865 to the exploration of the Philippines. During this time, he endured extreme hardship, frequent serious illness (malaria and dysentery), and great danger (hostile natives and travel in unseaworthy boats). Nevertheless, it was a period of outstanding achievement, chiefly because of Semper’s dogged determination. He acquired magnificent zoological and ethnographic collections on the islands of Luzon, Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, and Mindanao, thus laying a permanent foundation for future research in the Philippines.

After his return to Germany, Semper was appointed Privatdozent (1866) at the University of Würzburg and later full professor of zoology and director of the zoological institute (1869). He was an active teacher with numerous students, but in 1887 a stroke left him a semi-invalid and forced him, in 1893, to retire.

Semper’s bibliography of ninety titles reveals his broad interests. In addition to his journal articles, in which he reported his Philippine travels, he published two books on geography and ethnology-one dealing with the Philippines, the other with the Palau Islands. Mollusks were his favored group of animals and more than half of his publications are devoted to this group: but he also published on corals, holothurians, pycnogonids, ascidians, annelids, crustaceans, and sharks. His interests included taxonomy, anatomy, histology, and phylogeny. He was especially interested in evolution, and contributed his share to the construction of phylogenetic trees, basing his investigation in part on the (erroneous) belief that the urogenital system of the sharks could be homologized with that of the annelids. This assumption involved him in a heated controversy with Max Fürbringer and others. The ten-quarto-volume Reisen im Archipel der Philippinen, which contains Semper’s scientific reports on his collections, is a monument to his industry and determination. It remains, to this day, an important source book, particularly for the Philippine mollusks.

Probably Semper is best known for his two-volume Die natürlichen Existenzbedingungen der Thiere, the first textbook on animal ecology. The work was based on a series of twelve lectures given in 1877 at the Lowell Technological Institute in Boston. In this volume on physiological ecology he discussed the influence of the physical and biotic environment on the structure, distribution, and habits of organisms. Food, light and darkness, temperature, water, water currents, and various aspects of symbiosis, parasitism, and predator-prey relations are treated. Semper’s emphasis on the living animal was of decisive importance in an age that placed an exaggerated value on the study of morphology.


I. Original Works. Semper’s works include vols. I . (Holothuria), III (Terrestrial Mollusks), V, and VI (Lepidoptera) of Reisen in Archipel der Philippinen, 10 vols. (Wiesbaden, 1868–1905) (for a complete collation of the 100 parts in which this work was issued, see R. I. Johnson, in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 5 [1969], 144–147); and Die natürlichen Existenzbedingungen der Thiere, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1880), with English trans., Animal Life as Affected by the Natural Conditions of Existence (London, 1880).

II. Secondary Literature. On Semper’s life and work, see. A. Schuberg. “Carl Semper,” in Reisen... X (1895), vi-xxi, with complete bibliography.

Ernst Mayr