ALD21: Maria Sibylla Merian, Naturalist and Scientific Illustrator

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist and scientific illustrator, one of the first researchers to systematically observe insects and the first person to document the process of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly or moth. She also discovered that caterpillars ate only specific plants, and that the butterfly would therefore lay eggs near these plants. She observed the way that some larvae shed their skins, detailed how larvae spun their cocoons, and made many other observations that had not been recorded before.

Born in 1647 in Germany, Merian made major contributions to entomology and was one of the first ecologists. Her observations were very detailed, for example, she identified the differences between male and female adult insects and examined their full life-cycle. In one notable illustration, she shows all the steps of the silkworm moth life-cycle.

In 1679, a year after the birth of her second daughter, Merian published Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars), the result of almost two decades of observations. Merian illustrated her book about caterpillars herself, composing complex, lifelike scenes, where several insects interact with each other.

In 1699, Merian travelled with her youngest daughter to Suriname in South America and spent two years collecting specimens. Expeditions for scientists at that time were quite uncommon, and women especially did not travel to a different continent on their own. The outcome from her research justified the trip: her seminal work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, (Metamorphosis of Surinamese Insects), which describes the plant and animal life of Suriname.

Further reading

Posted in Ada Lovelace Day 2021.