150 Years Before Darwin, She Mastered Art to Learn About Ecology

This portion of 'Metamorphosis of a Butterfly' is an example of Maria Sibylla Merian's artistic talents applied to a scientific endeavor. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Maria Sibylla Merian began drawing flowers when she was little girl, but soon turned her attention toinsects, a subject she found vastly more interesting. Merian raised caterpillars in her basement, studying their metamorphoses and taking notes, according to the J. Paul Getty Museum. She soon broadened her interests to butterflies and moths and insects of all sorts, cataloging and painting intricate portraits of their fascinating life cycles.

The curious German child grew up to be an artist, botanist and entomologist. Originally published in 1705, her most famous work "Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium," was republished in late 2016, drawing attention to the illustrations that were considered groundbreaking in the field of entomology.

'Plate LX' from 'Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium'. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 1679, Merian wrote her first book, "Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars)" — this after two decades of preparation in a home packed with specimens in boxes and jars and plants in every corner.

"She was ahead of her time," Kay Etheridge, a professor of biology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. Etheridge, who has done considerable research on Merian, will be part of an international conference on Merian’s life and work in Amsterdam in June 2017.

“She was a scientist on the level with a lot of people we spend a lot of time talking about,” Etheridge said. “She didn’t do as much to change biology as Darwin, but she was significant.”

Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLV. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Merian began to develop a reputation for her talents as both an entomologist and an artist. Collectors brought her their drawings and their specimens.

Although she was enthralled by the wonders she saw, she wanted to see the insects in their natural habitat and soon boarded a ship with her youngest daughter to Suriname, in the northwestern coast of South America.

Plate XLVIII from 'Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium'. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Merian and her daughter spent two years in Suriname, studying and sketching insects, animals and plants. Their work became the subject of her famous book, "Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium" or "The Insects of Suriname."

'Duroia eriopila'. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Merian's work helped dispel many commonly held theories at the time, including one that insects spontaneously emerged from decaying matter.

"The knowledge she collected over decades didn’t just satisfy those curious about nature," writes the New York Times, "but also provided valuable insights into medicine and science."

'Spectacled Caiman and a False Coral Snake'. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The second edition of Merian's most famous work included 12 new plates of amphibious life in Suriname. Here, according to the Getty museum, a caiman attacks a snake to prevent it from destroying one of her eggs. Merian died two years before this illustration was published, but the importance of her work is gaining new attention in modern times. You can see more of her work in the plates below.

'Das kleine Buch der Tropenwunder'. (Photo: Wikipedia)
'Duroia sp. and assorted insects'. (Photo: Wikipedia)
'Spiders, ants and hummingbird on a branch of a guava.'. (Photo: Wikipedia)