“Nature conservation is rarely a struggle because of human needs,
but too often because of human choices.”
What he likes best is discovering the hitherto unknown: As head of the Myriapoda section and curator of the associated collection at the Museum Koenig Bonn, Thomas Wesener is scientifically very familiar with centipedes. At the LIB, he has found his dream job and is working to ensure that we will soon know more than just about ten percent of all millipedes.
What is your highlight during your everyday life at the LIB?
The research. When I manage to discover something new, something unknown through my research. When I discover a new species or finally realise a new system – either in nature or in our museum landscape – that is always a big highlight for me. Thankfully, this happens almost every month for me. Most recently, we received a large collection of cave millipedes from Cambodia. There are numerous caves there and in each one different animals were found that were unknown and undescribed until recently. So far, only about 40 species of millipedes are known in the country, but there are certainly more than 300 different species there. That holds incredible potential for my work.
Which animals are particularly close to your heart?
I research centipedes because so little is known about these animals and they have evolved in so many different ways. About 90 percent of all species are still unknown to us. We still know relatively little about their way of life in particular. Beyond my research, I am a real fan of Sumatran rhinos. This completely crazy rhino is actually much too small. That is why it’s also called a dwarf rhino. It also has red hair and two horns – instead of just one. It can whistle and it likes to flute to itself. We always think that as zoologists, we have such a good overview, but then you stand in front of such an animal and are blown away because you did not expect anything like this.
Is there a place in nature that has a special meaning for you?
There is an old volcano near here – it is called “Bausenberg” near Niederzissen in Rhineland-Palatinate. It is always about five degrees warmer there than in the surrounding area and for this reason many animal and plant species occur there that we otherwise only know from the Mediterranean. It is practically a world of its own, which is why it fascinates me so much. Especially in spring, it is a very popular destination for day trips for my family and me. Due to the somewhat warmer temperature, it is always easier to walk around there without jackets. Our children also love the lava landscape there.
How would you explain the technical term “biodiversity” to children or older people?
The colloquial translation for the term – biodiversity – fits very well, I think. People are often surprised at what is hidden under the microscope in a handful of soil and what variety of species we find there. If you look more closely, you notice that it is not “just” ducks swimming on a pond, but that they differ from each other in colour, size and behaviour. It is important that we look and are aware of these differences. Our work here at the LIB is therefore important to make society aware of the dwindling biodiversity and to prove it through our research.
What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years’ time?
I would like to see biodiversity change and species extinction become more visible in the exhibitions as well. A large part of our budget goes into research and that should then be visible in the exhibition. Especially with a view to a new natural history museum in Hamburg, I would be very happy about this development.
The biggest challenge in species conservation?
For me, it is the extinction of species. Many species are also simply dying out due to human misplanning and stupidity. Because “it can’t be avoided”. A good example is the field hamster in North Rhine-Westphalia: Here, construction projects were initiated in fields that are considered rare habitats for the small rodent. Although there would have been enough free fields, the decision was made against the protection of the animals and in favour of this construction project. It is rarely a struggle because of human needs, but too often because of human choices.
When it was clear to you: being a biologist is my dream job!
That was already clear to me as a child. The interest in animals was always there and I always wanted to know something new and unknown about animals. I still have this curiosity today and it motivated me to study biology back then. However, the tasks are more varied than I had initially assumed. In the first semester, I realised how much further my knowledge had to go than biology and how much we still do not know about nature as a whole. I find it exciting how much there is still to discover.
Would there have been an alternative for you?
I probably would have studied history – that would have been my alternative. In that field, too, I would have liked to discover things that are still unknown to us. However, to be quite honest: As a biologist, I applied all over the world – also in Korea and Russia – to be able to realise my dream. Therefore, it is hard for me to consider this “alternative”. This position as curator of the collection and researcher at the Museum Koenig Bonn is my fulfilled professional dream.
What advice would you give a young biologist to start his or her own career?
If you really want to do this, pick a project right away where your whole heart and passion are in it. There will always be difficult moments in between, and if you do not have a certain fire burning inside you, it will be difficult to overcome these hurdles. In teaching, I mainly deal with Master’s students and I see a lot of this passion in their faces. For a career in science, you should also be flexible in terms of location and accept jobs even if they are advertised far away abroad.
Which section at the LIB is particularly close to your heart?
I think our collections are great in general. Not only my own, because that means work for me, of course, but also the entomological collection here in Bonn, for example. You enter the room and there are 2.5 million butterflies behind glass – I do not think we can bring other people closer to biodiversity any better than that. These different colours, shapes and sizes are very impressive.
Dr Thomas Wesener was born and raised in the Ruhr region. From 1999 to 2004, he studied biology at the Ruhr University in Bochum – on the subject of giant spherical centipedes in coastal rainforests of Madagascar. He then wrote his doctoral thesis on the faunas of centipedes of Madagascar in Bochum and Bonn. From 2008 to 2010, he was a postdoc at the Field Museum in Chicago. Since the end of 2010, Thomas Wesener has been curator for Myriapoda (centipedes) at the Museum Koenig Bonn. For the past year, unfortunately, he has been the only curator for Myriapoda in the whole of Germany.