He studied medicine at Jena and Helmstedt.
In 1811 he published Reisen im südlichen Afrika: in den Jahren 1803, 1804, 1805, und 1806. As a result, he was appointed professor of zoology at the University of Berlin in 1811, and appointed director of the Berlin Zoological Museum in 1813. He died after he had a stroke at sea travelling aboard a steamer from Korsør to Kiel.
Lichtenstein was responsible for the creation of Berlin"s Zoological Gardens in 1841, when he persuaded King Frederick William IV of Prussia to donate the grounds of his pheasantry.
He also published Johann Reinhold Forster"s manuscripts for Descriptiones animalium in 1844. In the field of herpetology he described many new species of amphibians and reptiles.
Among species named by Lichtenstein are included the Australian king parrot (Alisterus scapularis), crowned sandgrouse (Pterocles coronatus), and the Cape night adder (Causus rhombeatus). In 1859 Italian herpetologist, Giorgio January, named the forest night adder (Causus lichtensteinii) in honor of Martin Lichtenstein, as did the Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck with the Lichtenstein"s sandgrouse (Pterocles lichtensteinii).
Doctor Doctor Ernst Rudorff (Hrsg): Briefe von Carl Maria von Weber an EA.
German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Göttingen Academy of Sciences]
In 1829, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.