Alexander von Humboldt

Biogeography: Why are species where they are?

contributed by Daniel Hughes


Animals, Aquatic, Asia, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Bisexual, Central America, Community ecology, Desert, Ecology, Europe, Evolution, Field, Forest, Fossils, Freshwater, Fundamental research, Fungi, Gay, Global patterns, Grassland, Historical figure, LGBTQIA+, Marine, North America, Observational, Plants, South America, Succession, Terrestrial, Tundra


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Note: click the gear symbol or see below for notes that accompany the presentation

Other Resources

Wulf, A. 2015. The invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world. Vintage Books, Penguin Random House LLC, New York, USA.

Presentation Notes

Researcher’s Background

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German naturalist who, through his expeditions to South America and Russia, advanced the then-unknown fields of biogeography and ecology. 

Biography in brief

von Humboldt was the very wealthy heir to a Prussian noble family. Though he had many varied areas of interest, his greatest contribution was through his fieldwork cataloging and identifying plants throughout the world. More geographic features and species are named after him than anyone else. Read more about Alexander in “the Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” by Andrea Wulf.

Axes of identity & underrepresentation

von Humboldt never married and is considered by most historians to have been gay or bisexual. He was “charmed” by various women, but also had strong male friendships, and multiple romances with men. His sister-in-law Caroline von Humboldt stated that, “nothing will ever have a great influence on Alexander that doesn’t come through men.” 

Research Overview

Take home message of study

Alexander von Humboldt’s work was among the first to consider how abiotic and ecological interactions affect the species makeup of an area. By collecting specimens directly, he was able to notice patterns in size, shape, and abundance of plant communities in different areas and elevations.

Study system

von Humboldt looked at all organisms he could get his hands on, but was especially interested in plants, as they are the easiest to tie to a specific habitat and geographical area.

Key Research Points

Main contributions/Key Figure

This mountain diagram a good example of the patterns Humboldt discovered through his observations. The individual biomes along the mountains aren’t particularly relevant: what is new is how Humboldt notices radically different tree species at different elevations, and connects them to their location. This is thus one of the first attempts to think about organisms in a community context – that is, looking at interacting groups of organisms rather than a single organism in isolation.

Societal Relevance

Looking at ecosystems as interacting groups of organisms as well as abiotic factors such as temperature, humidity, and elevation,  is foundational to ecology, and underpins many of ecology’s varied social benefits.

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