Ulrich Kotthoff im Geologisch-Paläontologischen Museum in Hamburg. © UHH/Ohme
Professionally, he looks far into the past and, together with us, into the future: as a geologist and palaeontologist at the LIB, Ulrich Kotthoff’s research focus is on the past 50 million years or so. Looking at pollen, insects, and arachnids, he reconstructs past changes in ecosystems, climate and biodiversity. In an interview, the director of the Geological-Palaeontological Museum reveals why he is particularly looking forward to the new Natural History Museum in Hamburg and why the transfer of knowledge is so close to his heart.
What led you to geology and palaeontology? Was there a key experience?
My path led me first and foremost to palaeontology. I had different ideas, but even as a child I was fascinated by the distant past: You learn a lot about your own biological roots, but also how the whole world came to be. There was no real key experience, but I remember that a visit to the Munich Natural History Museum made a strong impression on me. I’ve had a keen interest in natural science – especially dinosaurs, of course – since early childhood.
So, you have found your dream job?
Basically, yes: a job as a palaeontologist, where I can also implement a lot in the field of knowledge transfer, has already been my professional goal. I have the opportunity to do my research, to teach and, through the museums and projects in the field of public relations, I can directly pass on our expertise to the visitors. In that sense, I have fulfilled my professional dream.
What aspect of your everyday professional life is your highlight?
Knowledge transfer in various forms is very close to my heart. In lectures, talks or by designing showcases or videos, we are always thinking up new ways of bringing the complex interrelationships of the Earth and its history to the public. I think we succeeded particularly well with the last exhibition “Eocene – At the Beginning of Our World” in the Zoological Museum Hamburg. Together with the teams from exhibition conception and education and outreach, we were able to put together a very diverse programme.
Where does this proximity to knowledge transfer come from?
I would have liked to become a journalist. I used to do radio broadcasts as a hobby and like to produce films or radio plays privately. I like working with media and especially with people. Without specialising in any area here, I like to combine my research area with easily accessible content.
What does nature mean to you personally?
Sometimes a step outside the door is enough to make an exciting discovery: I discover a bee on a bush in a park and can watch it for minutes. I also think quarries are great, I often have fossils and today’s rare animal and plant species in one place. At the same time, abandoned quarries illustrate that humans can also have a positive effect on diversity in an area.
Crayfish, fish, butterflies: Who has their own personal affection and why?
I find insects, especially Hymenoptera, very fascinating as a field of research. What I like about termites is the way their states are socially structured: Instead of killing each other at regular intervals, each member of the state has the chance to rise in the hierarchy and even become king or queen. Personally, however, I find the marten-like family – for example martens, otters or wolverines – more appealing.
How do you explain the term biodiversity to children/older people?
The word “biodiversity” fits quite well – I think the term is also understood quite quickly. But the most important thing is to explain why declining biodiversity is detrimental to us and to life. An important keyword is the stability of ecosystems – you can also quickly make it clear to children that it is not only the number of species that matters, but also the number of individuals, and that the disappearance of one species can lead to the disappearance of others. I also think it is important to include the morphological diversity of forms: If there are a hundred species of a genus, then a loss of diversity at the species level may not be so bad if the hundred species have similar lifestyles and all pollinate the same plant, for example. But if a particular pollinator body type is lost, more species could quickly become extinct as a result.
What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years’ time?
I hope that we will be a widely recognised and well-known institutional authority on biodiversity development and mentally associated with two great museums – one in Bonn, one in Hamburg.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the field of environmental protection?
That there are so many problems that need to be addressed, preferably at the same time – anthropogenic climate change, separation and destruction of ecosystems, introduction of toxins and other harmful substances into the environment, to name just three aspects. The most difficult thing is probably to keep track of all the challenges and to focus on the “right” measures and to classify them correctly.
What would you have become if geology or palaeontology had not worked out?
I think I would have come back to the same topics in other ways – for example as a science journalist or book author. I think the great art of it is to be able to break topics down without losing sight of the big picture. But I also enjoy developing fictional stories. Music was and is also an important aspect for me: as a double bass player, for example, I was active in orchestras and played jazz in various bands. I was also able to take part in smaller projects in Hamburg. From time to time, stories and music also flow into public relations work.
What advice do you have for young geoscientists at the beginning of their careers?
You should listen to yourself and see if you are really passionate about the subject matter. In addition, you should have a plan for how you can then put things into practice. A portion of luck can’t hurt either. Especially in our field, I advise young colleagues: Work together with geoscientists and/or bioscientists as well as climate scientists, be open to new methods and specialise in one area, but without losing sight of the connections and the big picture.
Which sub-area at the LIB is particularly close to your personal heart?
Of course, the future of the Geological-Palaeontological Museum in Hamburg, for which I am responsible. I am particularly looking forward to the upcoming new Natural History Museum in Hamburg, because here we will have the chance to trace not only the evolution of the last hundred years, but – thanks to geology and palaeontology – also the long-term effects. Both regarding research and the permanent exhibitions of the LIB’s museums, I am optimistic that we will cooperate even more closely here across departments.
Which topic would be particularly exciting for museum visitors?
Climate changes and changes in the abiotic earth are closely linked to evolution. That is an aspect that should be clearly emphasised in the exhibitions. What I also find important is that you can’t just try to reconstruct the past from what is there today, but you must realise that whole groups of plants and animals are no longer there today, even though they played a major role in the function of ecosystems at one time in the past.
I would also be very much in favour of including the theme of anthropology in the new museum. We humans all go back to one origin. We should make people aware of this to counteract the unequal treatment of people and racism.
What impact does your research have on society?
I see again and again that the palaeoclimatological research projects, in which I have been and am involved, meet with great interest. In them, we try to find answers to questions such as to what extent the climate has influenced human development or what insights we can gain from past climate fluctuations for the future?
Dr. Ulrich Kotthoff heads the palaeontological collections and the Geological-Palaeontological Museum at the LIB site in Hamburg. He studied geology and palaeontology in Tübingen until 2003, before completing his doctorate in geosciences in Frankfurt on ecosystem and climate changes in the Mediterranean region. From 2008 until the founding of the LIB 2021, he worked at the University of Hamburg and is still active there as a lecturer within the framework of teaching.