ChapterPDF Available

Maria Sibylla Merian: The first ecologist?

Authors:
31
Maria Sibylla Merian: The First Ecologist?
1
Kay Etheridge (Gettysburg College)
The images in Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium
are among the most dramatic and beautiful in any natural history book, but even as her
work has been celebrated by art historians, the significance of her contributions has been
overlooked by most historians of science. Both Metamorphosis and her earlier Raupen
books were seminal in shaping how nature was viewed and how it was portrayed by those
who followed her. The plates in these richly illustrated books were not only the first to
depict the life cycles of insects along with their plant hosts; they were also the first to
emphasize interactions among the species portrayed the very foundation of the study of
ecology. This paper will recount Merian’s major contributions to the study of natural
history and her considerable influence on other naturalists and scientists who followed
her.
2
Merian’s biography has been detailed elsewhere (see for example Rücker; Davis
140-202; Pieters and Winthagen; Todd); therefore, only the relevant aspects are included
here. She was born in 1647 in Frankfurt am Main into a family of artists and engravers,
and she began drawing and painting at an early age. In 1675 she published twelve plates
of a book of flowers and within five years had completed a small three-volume florilegia
(Merian, Neues Blumenbuch). The images of flowers in these books were decorative and
many appear to have been derived primarily from copies of florilegia such as that of
Nicolas Robert (French, 1614-1685) and from paintings by her stepfather Jacob Marrel
(Dutch, 1613-1681). Merian’s innovative approach incorporated insects into a number of
the plates with the flowers; the insects were copied largely from work by Jacob
Hoefnagel (Flemish, 1575-1630) (Segal 69-73). Merian appears to have been unsatisfied
1
Acknowledgements
Gettysburg College generously funded much of this work. Michael Ritterson provided translation of
Merian’s works from the original German. I am very grateful for help from Tom Baione at the American
Natural History Museum, Leslie Overstreet and Daria Wingreen-Mason at the Joseph F. Cullman Library
of Natural History, Kim Sloan at the British Museum, and Susan Owens at the Print Room of Windsor
Castle. I would like to thank Mrs. Rachel Lambert Mellon for allowing me to work with books from her
private collection at the Oak Spring Garden Library. I also would like to thank Florence Pieters, Jo Francis
and John Fuegi for pointing me to several important resources related to this paper.
2
The words science and ecology were not used in the modern sense before the 19
th
century, but will be
applied here for the sake of simplicity.
32
with merely copying insect paintings, and she spent most of her life collecting and
observing insects; she recorded in her study journal that she raised silkworms and other
insects by the age of 13 (Merian, Studienbuch 51). A growing fascination with insects
seems to have overridden her interest in flowers, and she increasingly collected and
studied moths and butterflies (lepidopteran insects). In Nuremburg and Frankfurt Merian
roamed gardens and the countryside searching for caterpillars (larvae), keeping records of
their food plants, the timing of their metamorphoses, and the behaviors of each species.
Between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-six Merian published two caterpillar or
“Raupen” volumes titled Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare
Blumen-Nahrung (Merian Der Raupen 1679 and 1683) Each volume contained fifty
plates engraved and etched by Merian along with her descriptions of insects, primarily
moths, butterflies, their larvae.
Merian continued her studies of insects for about five years while living in
Friesland at Waltha Castle with the Labadist sect. During her time at Waltha and after her
move to Amsterdam in 1691 Merian had the opportunity to view exotic specimens of
butterflies and other insects from the Americas that were in the collections of
missionaries, merchants, and other naturalists of her acquaintance. In 1699 she
interrupted her observations of European insects and traveled to Dutch Surinam expressly
to study and record the insect life of the tropics. As pointed out by Davis (168) this
voyage was not only unusual for a woman in her position, it was unprecedented for any
European naturalist to venture such an independently financed and organized expedition.
3
In Surinam she worked for almost two years collecting, observing and painting over
ninety species of animals and sixty or more species of plants. Within three years of her
return to Amsterdam she published Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (Merian,
Metamorphosis 1705), considered by most scholars to be her opus magnum. Yet Merian
did not cease her study of European insects. She continued to add to the existing
engravings of her Raupen books and in 1713 reissued the first two volumes in Dutch
3
Other naturalists journeyed to the New World as part of larger expeditions or in a manner such as Hans
Sloane, who traveled to the Americas as a physician in the service of a colonial governor (Davis 169).
Merian had no major patron and primarily financed her work by the sale of her specimens, paintings, and
books.
33
(Merian, Der Rupsen).
4
She still had enough material for fifty more plates and text for a
third book of insects, which was completed by her daughters and published after her
death as one volume with the 1713 editions of the first two books (Merian, Der Rupsen
1713). Several editions of Metamorphosis also were published posthumously, at first by
her family and later by others. Twelve additional plates were added to Metamorphosis in
these editions; most of these appear to be engraved from images by Merian, but at least
two of these plates were not her work (Rücker, Stearn 176).
5
Quality of Information in Merian’s Images
Merian certainly was not the first naturalist to illustrate her own work, but she
was one of the first trained artists to conduct long-term studies of a specific group of
organisms. The text and images that inform her volumes are the product of decades of
meticulous observations of the life cycles of insects, and her skill in recording what she
saw was unmatched by any naturalist who preceded her or by her contemporaries. Not
only were her artistic skills much greater than previous artist-naturalists like Conrad
Gesner (Swiss, 1516-1565), but most of her images were made from live or freshly
preserved specimens. Merian show moths laying eggs (see Figure 1), caterpillars feeding
on leaves, and butterflies and lizards alike extending their tongues toward potential food.
Paintings made from fresh material allow an artist to capture animal behavior and to
portray color accurately as preserved specimens lose color. In order to create complex
compositions containing a variety of organisms accurately depicted, Merian relied on
individual studies made on small pieces of vellum; many of these are preserved in her
study journal (Merian, Studienbuch).
6
When an animal was copied into a larger
composition, Merian changed very little, preserving the posture, color and details of the
creature. Unfortunately, no study journal of her plant paintings has ever been found or
4
Merian reused her original copper plates and engraved other insects where space allowed. The 1717
reissue of the first Raupenbuch had additional insects inserted into the engravings of roughly one-third of
the plates. I compared the 1717 edition to the 1679 edition at Oak Spring Garden Library in Upperville,
Virginia.
5
Plates 71 and 72 in the posthumous editions of Metamorphosis are engravings based upon works from
the collection of Albert Seba (Rücker, Stearn 131). Unfortunately, these two plates contained gross
inaccuracies that were mistakenly attributed to Merian, damaging her reputation in later years.
6
The original study journal is housed in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Library of the Academy of Sciences,
but an excellent facsimile volume contains both her written entries and color reproductions of her studies
(Merian, Studienbuch).
34
reported, so it remains an open question as to how she initially recorded these. The fact
that she often included the reproductive cycle of a plant from flower bud through fruit
would indicate that she did make studies of plants.
Another factor contributing to the quality of the images in early editions of her
work is that their production was closely supervised by Merian. For the first two volumes
of the Raupen she engraved all fifty plates used for the printing of each as well as writing
the text. Merian engraved only one plate for Metamorphosis, but she must have
supervised the engravers, because other than the spacing of the organisms on the page,
there are few differences between the printed images in Metamorphosis and the original
watercolors by her hand.
7
The engravings in some first editions of her work were
beautifully hand-colored by Merian, possibly with assistance from her daughters (Rücker,
Stearn 43-44). Merian was very concerned with color accuracy, and from her training as
an artist she understood pigments and how to achieve the color effects needed to best
portray an organism with precision. In Metamorphosis she reported on plants from which
pigments could be extracted (see for example Merian, Metamorphosis, 1705, text with
plate 44). Later editions of Merian’s books often deviate quite a bit from the originals, as
they were colored (sometimes badly) by others, and for color accuracy first editions
known to be colored by Merian or the original watercolors must be viewed. In these
images the matching of Merian’s colors to those of the organisms depicted is quite
remarkable and adds considerably to the information conveyed.
As a testament to her accurate portrayals of life, an entomologist who analyzed
her study journal reported that seventy-three percent of the images of lepidopterans are
identifiable to genus and sixty-six percent can be identified as an exact species (Merian,
Studienbuch 417). This success rate for matching known species to painted images is
impressive, particularly when one considers that the identification of all insects in the
tropics remains incomplete even today and also that some species likely have become
extinct since Merian recorded them. Scientists believe that she is the only person to date
to have recorded the metamorphosis of some of the Surinam species (Merian,
Studienbuch 61). Insects and spiders were not the only animals portrayed by Merian, and
7
Many of the original watercolors for Metamorphosis are held in the British Museum and in the Royal
Library at Windsor. In studying both of these collections I compared the Merian watercolors to the
engravings in the 1705 edition.
35
the 1705 edition of Metamorphosis contains images of two species each of frogs, snakes
and lizards, and the 1719 edition had additional vertebrate species added. All of these
animals can be identified to species, and most have some detail of their life history
portrayed. The two images of amphibian metamorphosis in the first edition of
Metamorphosis were by far the most accurate published by 1705 (Etheridge 77-79). As
stated by Davis, Merian’s Surinam images were part of the early stages of “looking and
describing” by Europeans (181), a process that was taken to a new level by Carl Linnaeus
and others as they developed the taxonomic scheme still in use today. Early taxonomy
often relied on images when specimens were not available, and Linnaeus and his
followers used Merian’s depictions to name at least one hundred species (Rücker, Stearn
18). Stearn includes Merian with six others whose illustrations formed the basis of most
Linnaeus’s early taxonomy of tropical plants (Stearn, Carl Linnaeus 780), pointing out
that actual specimens from such areas were initially rare because collecting them was
expensive and often dangerous.
8
Paradoxically, Merian was not interested in the mere collection, listing or naming
of her subjects but in how they lived and died. The importance she placed on plant and
animal interactions and life cycles can be seen not only in her illustrations, but in the text
of her books and in her letters. In response to receiving specimens from James Petiver,
Merian wrote him to say that she “was not looking for any more creatures, but only at the
formation, propagation, and metamorphosis of creatures, how one emerges from the
other, the nature of their diet…” (Rücker, Stearn 72). Merian’s passion to know these
small animals led her to spend decades studying their reproduction and development, as
well as their behaviors and interactions with other species.
Merian’s Original Contributions
On the title page of her 1679 Raupen Merian described the books contents as
follows:
…..wherein by means of an entirely new invention the origin,
food and development of caterpillars, worms, butterflies, moths,
flies and other such little animals, including times, places and
8
Linnaeus never set foot in the tropics, which as Stearn writes may have been a good thing in view of his
subsequent lifetime achievements; five of his students died while on collecting expeditions (Stearn,
Linneaus 777).
36
characteristics, for naturalists, artists, and gardeners, are
diligently examined, briefly described, painted from nature,
engraved in copper and published independently (translated from
Merian, Der Raupen 1679).
Merian’s “new invention” was not in her depiction of the life stages of the European
moths and butterflies. Jan Goedaert (Dutch, 1620-1668) did this before her, although the
information in his images was incomplete, typically showing only one adult, a pupa and
one larvae (Goedaert). Merian’s improvements on Goedaert’s imagery can be seen by
comparing Figures 1 and 2. Goedaert’s views of the adults showed one position, and he
did not illustrate any differences between the sexes. In some plates as in Figure 1, Merian
showed the physical differences between male and female adults. She also pictured some
adults with wings in more than one position, particularly when the butterfly or moth had
very different coloration on each side of a wing. Other particulars, such as the extended
proboscis of feeding insects, could have been seen only by observing live specimens. The
first plate in the 1679 Raupen illustrates the life cycle of the silkworm moth in particular
detail (Figure 1). The cycle can be followed from eggs and a hatching larva in the lower
right-hand corner, through several molts of the growing larvae. Merian wrote
descriptively her first caterpillar book that
Their [the larvae] size increases by the day, especially when they
have enough food. Some then attain their full size in several
weeks; others can require up to two months. Many shed their
skins completely three or four times, just as a person pulls off a
shirt over his head…. (translated from Merian, Der Raupen 1679
preface).
To illustrate this phenomenon she included an image of a shed exoskeleton
9
to the left of
the mulberry leaf on which the large pre-pupal larva is feeding. At the next level up,
views of the cocoon and pupae are shown at various stages, and the adult moths are
included at the top of the engraving. Here Merian clearly illustrates the differences in the
male and the much larger female, and she completes the cycle by showing the male
secreting semen and the female laying the eggs of the next generation. Merian’s inclusion
of eggs and semen as part of the life cycle of a moth in the first plate of her book made a
9
As arthropods, insects have an external skeleton that must be shed and then reformed at various stages of
growth. Merian appears to be the first to describe this in caterpillars.
37
definitive statement about the underlying principles of reproduction of insects at a time
when the process was poorly understood. Goedaert did not include eggs in his images,
and he in fact believed that caterpillars were generated from water (Cobb 40) and that
adult butterflies arose from decayed caterpillars (138). Spontaneous generation of insects
was still a widely held belief when Merian published her first Raupen, but she writes in
her preface that “all caterpillars, as long as the butterflies have mated beforehand, emerge
from their eggs” (translated from Merian, Der Raupen 1679 iv). Merian made her
discoveries independently and within the same time frame as others such as Redi,
Malpighi and Swammerdam.
10
Although Merian’s portrayal of insect and plant life cycles was generally accurate
and well-observed, it could be argued that her major contribution was to depict
interactions among organisms, a key component of ecological studies. As noted by
Pieters and Winthagen (10) Merian’s combination of diverse taxa within one image was
decidedly different from the classic works of Goedaert, Jan Swammerdam (Dutch 1637-
1680), Francis Willughby (English, 1635-1672) and others who preceded her, and also
differed from the works of countrymen and contemporaries such as Georg Rumphius
(German-Dutch, 1628-1702). Merian is best known for her remarkable images of insects
and their plant hosts, but this aspect of her work has been analyzed more often from an
aesthetic than a scientific viewpoint. Yet one of Merian’s most important scientific
contributions is the pairing of each larval lepidopteran that she observed with a plant on
which it feeds. The association was made either in her images, in text, or more often in
both. By picturing the details of herbivory on leaves she draws attention to the
relationship between plant and animal. In cases where Merian had already depicted a
plant species with another caterpillar, she would sometimes substitute a decorative plant
in the plate with a second or third species which fed on the same type of plant. When she
did this, Merian made clear in the text that this was the case, and she named the actual
type of plant on which she usually found the larvae feeding. Merian also made note of
which caterpillars ate only one plant (in contemporary ecological terms a “specialist”)
10
Cobb details the discoveries of these men and others from the 17
th
century who determined that insects
and other animals were spawned by adults of their own species. Neither he nor other science historians
mention Merian’s work on this topic.
38
and which were more catholic in their appetites (“generalists”). Furthermore in her first
Raupen book, she noted and remarked on this difference in approach to feeding:
It is surprising to note that I often kept caterpillars which fed on
one flowering plant only, would feed on that one alone, and soon
died if I did not provide it for them. At the same time, I kept
many other caterpillars which would feed on more than one
flower, though a number of these did have particular preferences
among the plants they would eat. Indeed, they would move
immediately from one food to another that they preferred as soon
as they discovered it. Then again, I have had six or more species
of caterpillars with a definite taste for an assortment of things
in fact, the same things and which fed on them with equal
pleasure, such that I was more than a little surprised by it.
Among this last group are also the present caterpillars, inasmuch
as I have found them in large numbers on all sorts of plants and
blossoms: peas and plantain, Peterlein or parsley, white
nightshades, and musk flowers (one of which is depicted here),
and many others. (translated from Merian, Der Raupen 1679,
93).
The prevalence of this “plant-host” association was eventually realized to be so important
that in the earliest taxonomy of moths and butterflies these insects often were given
species names based not on their own characteristics, but were named for the plants on
which the larvae were found (Rücker, Stearn 79). Much of modern ecology relies on
understanding the feeding preferences of animals, and as the primary consumers of plants
in many habitats, insects are often one of the most critical components in a food chain.
Merian was without question the first to document this crucial relationship among very
different organisms.
Merian also appears to have been one of the earliest naturalists to make several
other detailed behavioral and ecological observations on insects, first recorded as notes
and small studies (Merian, Studienbuch) and later published in the three volumes of
Raupen and in Metamorphosis. Her descriptions of the larvae of moths and butterflies are
particularly rich, and include such details as the way in which they formed their cocoons,
the effects of climate on their metamorphosis and abundance, and their mode of
locomotion. Merian reported unusual behaviors that she noted for certain types of
caterpillars, writing for example that when they have no food, this variety of caterpillars
39
devour each other, so great is their hunger” (Merian, Der Raupen 1679, 48).
11
She also
recounted the specific defensive behaviors for different types of caterpillars, writing for
one species that “if these large caterpillars are touched while crawling along a stem, they
roll up; but if they are squeezed they twist and turn violently (translated from Merian,
Der Raupen 1679, 93). For another type of caterpillar she wrote that it is by nature very
easily alarmed, for as soon as it senses or feels the least thing, it curls itself together at
once and lies there as if dead until everything is completely quiet again” (translated from
Merian, Der Raupen 1679, 95).
Another original and influential aspect of Merian’s images and text is her
depiction ofecological communities”
12
on a small scale, and several plates in her
Raupen books and in Metamorphosis illustrate such plant and animal interactions very
well. The image used for Plate 18 of Metamorphosis (Figure 3) depicts multiple levels of
interaction in a tropical community: the defoliation of an acacia tree by leaf cutter ants,
the attack of ants on small spiders and a roach, and the predation of large spiders on the
ants and on a bird. This was an extraordinary image for the time and must have intrigued
all who saw it; it was often cited and even copied by other artists (Todd 236). Merian
depicted “nature red in tooth and claw” long before Darwin or Tennyson wrote about the
struggle for survival among organisms. She began this theme in her 1679 Raupen volume
when she wrote about cannibalistic caterpillars and provided images of larval parasitic
wasps hatching from dead and dying caterpillars (Figure 4), and she expanded on it with
other images and text such as those regarding young frogs and predatory water bugs
(Figure 5). By showcasing these interspecific interactions in large and dramatically
staged images, she illuminated for the first time what is constantly occurring in nature,
largely unobserved by humans.
The Influence of Merian’s Work
Merian’s books were aesthetically different from any that preceded them in color,
composition, and in the case of the large folio volume, Metamorphosis, unusual even in
11
Cannibalism does occur in some caterpillars when they are deprived of food.
12
Current use of the term community by ecologists denotes a group of organisms living in the same place,
which either interact or have the potential to interact.
40
physical dimensions.
13
The dramatic impression that her life-sized images of insects must
have made on viewers cannot be over-estimated, and this effect likely accounts in large
part for the influence of her work. Most plates in Metamorphosis and some in the Raupen
books show a time-lapse of life cycles of both plants and animals, and Merian was the
first to portray these in combination. She also reversed the roles of the players; plants
traditionally had been the stars of natural history images and of European still-life
paintings, but Merian emphasized the insects. In Metamorphosis she made the point of
painting and printing the insects “life-size,” whereas plants and other animals were scaled
to fit into the composition. The large plates in her Surinam book amplified the message
that these small animals and their immediate communities were worthy of observation.
The Raupen books and Metamorphosis served as models for many artists and
naturalists who followed her. Although it is difficult to trace the precise pathways of
influence in a period when attribution was not required or even common, several lines of
evidence point to the effects of Merian’s images on the work of others; it is more difficult
to document the use of the information in her text by naturalists who followed her. That
Merian’s original works were reprinted numerous times and in a variety of languages
speaks for their influence. The first two Raupen books initially were printed in German,
but were reissued almost four decades later along with a third volume in Dutch (Merian,
Der Rupsen) and in Latin (Merian, Erucarum Ortus). Further editions were printed in
1730 in Dutch and in French. The first edition of Metamorphosis, published by Merian at
her own expense and sold by subscription, was quite expensive for its day and did not sell
many copies. However, when it was reprinted in 1719, 1726, and 1730, the book was
distributed much more widely. In 1771 a French publisher issued Metamorphosis and the
Raupen books as a two-volume set with the former in French and Latin and the latter in
French (Merian, Histoire Générale Des Insectes). Schiebinger writes that Merian’s books
were “a standard fixture in drawing rooms and natural history libraries” (77) and that
Metamorphosis was in the catalogue of numerous natural history cabinets in France
(294). Merian’s work has retained its appeal, and has continued to be reprinted in various
forms for three centuries. However, with the exception of a facsimile volume of
Metamorphosis (Merian, Rücker, Stearn), the text of her books has not been published in
13
Total page height is 54 cm or slightly over 21 inches. The plates are on separate pages from the text and
fill most of this space.
41
English. James Petiver (English, 1663-1718) corresponded with Merian about an English
edition of Metamorphosis, but this project never came to fruition. He instead published a
more wide-ranging catalog of natural history, the three volume Opera Historiam
Naturalem Spectantia (Petiver), which contains a large number insects and other animals
from Merian’s Metamorphosis and Raupen books. However, the creatures were removed
from the setting of plants depicted by Merian and were reorganized according to Petiver’s
ideas of order and classification (Figure 6). Petiver was not the last to copy Merian’s
images to illustrate a classification scheme, but at least he credited her. Merian’s images
appear out of their original context and uncredited in encyclopedias such as that by
Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, Comte de Lacépède (French, 1756-1825). For example the
caiman in plate 50 of his encyclopedia (La Cépède) is taken from Plate 69 in Merian’s
1719 edition of Metamorphosis.
Early editions of Merian’s books and even her original watercolors were collected
by Hans Sloane (English, 1660-1753) and Richard Mead (English, 1673-1754), and these
must have been examined with great interest by the many naturalists who associated with
these influential scholars. One such was Eleazar Albin (circa 1690-1742), who cited
Merian’s Raupen books extensively in his Natural History of English Insects, which is
primarily a volume about moths and butterflies (Albin). Although Sloane was a patron of
Albin and may have shared his collection with him, Albin also may have been familiar
with Merian’s work from his native Germany. Albin cites Merian along with Goedaert,
the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) and others, but it is clearly Merian’s work
that inspired his imagery (see Figures 4 and 7). Like Merian (and unlike Goedaert), Albin
included eggs, often depicted more than one stage of the larvae, and varied the views of
the adults to show their wings from different angles. Although it is unclear to what extent
Albin modeled his images after hers, his plate of the silkworm does show several
similarities to the silkworm moths illustrated by Merian. Both artists chose to depict
several more stages of development than they typically included with other species, and
Albin incorporated the same progression of development as did Merian. However,
Albin’s text is limited mostly to physical descriptions of the adults and larvae and he
rarely mentions their behavior or details of their metamorphosis. As was noted by
Valiant, Merian’s innovation of pairing insect with host plant and collapsing the life cycle
of each organism into one plate was used by many who followed her, although Merian
42
was not generally credited in these later works (473). Examples include Moses Harris
(English, 1731-1785), who compiled another natural history of English lepidopterans
(Harris) and John Abbot (American, 1751-1840), who studied North American butterflies
and moths (Abbot).
The influence of Merian’s books was not limited to those who worked with
lepidopterans, but may be seen in several important natural history studies that followed
the publication of Metamorphosis. René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757) was
a prominent French scientist best remembered for his six volume Mémoires pour Servir à
lHistoire des Insectes. He certainly was familiar with Merian’s Metamorphosis, citing
both its illustrations and her account of the tropical ants (Egerton, 221). Although he does
not credit Merian as having influenced his work, he appears to be the first after her to
write in detail of insect behaviors and their ecological relationship with host plants. Like
Merian, Réaumur showed their stages of metamorphosis, specific insect/plant
relationships, and insect damage to leaves, but the images he requested of his illustrators,
one or more unidentified women, are much more diagrammatic that those of Merian. In
Mémoires pour Servir à l’Histoire des Insectes Réaumur includes the type of
observations that can be found in Merian’s much earlier textual descriptions; for
example, the effects of temperature on the timing of metamorphosis, leaf rolling by
caterpillars, and some of their defensive behaviors. While it cannot be proven that these
observations were inspired by Merian’s text, there is no question that Merian wrote about
them at least four decades before Réaumur, and that he had read her work.
In some cases direct evidence of Merians influence can be documented. A young
German art student, August Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759) was loaned a copy of
Metamorphosis, and this event is credited with inspiring his publication of an illustrated
monthly serial titled Insecten-Belustigungen (Miall). The text and plates from the serial
ultimately were issued as a four-volume book on the natural history of insects (Rösel von
Rosenhof, Der Monatlich-Herausgegebenen Insecten-Belustigung). Rosenhof followed
his insect book with the publication of a large folio volume on German frogs, the Historia
Naturalis Ranarum Nostratium. Merian’s influence is particularly noticeable in the
magnificent frontispieces of Rosenhof’s various books, and these may even have been
meant as tributes to her and her work. In the frontispiece for Historia Naturalis Ranarum
(Figure 8) the lizard is twined around the rose stem while regarding a butterfly, the rose
43
plant shows all stages from bud to fruit, and there is evidence of insect damage on the
plants’ leaves; all of these details are hallmarks of Merian’s observational skills and her
pioneering efforts to picture the interactions among plants and animals. Rosenhof’s
primary format was different from that of Merian’s in that he illustrated in detail the
anatomy of all of the frogs and some of the insects, but like her he did portray many
insects with plants and included vignettes of frogs in their habitat. His second insect
volume also contains copies of some of Merian’s Surinam insects, and Rosenhof credits
her work in his text (Rösel von Rosenhof Der Monatlich-Herausgegebenen Insecten-
Belustigung).
After the publication of Metamorphosis, the next seminal book to picture New
World organisms was Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the
Bahama islands. The size and layout of his book closely follow that of Merian’s
Metamorphosis and his images frequently echo her compositions (see Figures 9 and
10).
14
Like Merian, he details the diet and ecological relationships of many of the
organisms that he observed (primarily birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians).
Catesby (English, 1683-1749) was another protégé of Hans Sloane, and as such had ready
access to Merian’s work (Meyers: Catesby, 21). It is not surprising that the plant and
animal paintings by this self-taught artist would be shaped by Merian’s bold images.
Ironically, the only mention of Merian in Catesby’s text is where he takes her to task for
misrepresenting the placement of the fruit of a cashew tree in a plate in Metamorphosis
(Catesby text with Plate 9, Appendix of Volume II). However, Linnaeus was critical of
Catesby’s work, and he often used Merian’s for his work in systematics and taxonomy
(Chaplin, 85). Catesby’s associations of plants and animals are much looser than those of
Merian, and some of the organisms that he pictured together would not be found in the
same habitat. Yet he mimicked Merian in the way he filled his large folio-sized plates
with plants and animals. As in his full page image of a bullfrog, Catesby elevated the
importance of small organisms by showing them as life-sized (Plate 72, Volume II).
Catesby also included images such as a sea turtle with her eggs, and a tree frog eyeing a
spider as prey, in the same way that Merian showed reptiles with their eggs and animals
in various acts of predation. After viewing Merian’s images of interacting organisms,
14
See Meyers (Catesby, 21-22) for further analysis and a comparison of Catesby and Merian’s books.
44
Catesby, consciously or not, was influenced to portray nature in a much more dynamic
way than the static depictions of earlier animal encyclopedias and herbals.
Another Sloane protégé and an associate of Catesby, George Edwards (English,
1694-1773), also was familiar with Merian’s work, and in 1759 he presented a paper to
the Royal Society in London that referred to the “frog-fish of Surinam” depicted in the
1719 edition of Metamorphosis (Edwards, "An Account of the Frog-Fish).
15
Merian’s
influence appears much earlier in Edwards’s illustrated book, A natural history of
uncommon birds. In imitation of Merian’s style Edwards set his birds on trees and
branches and often showed them poised to catch an insect or other prey. In Plate 202 of
Gleanings of natural history Edwards shows a “large green and spotted lizard” that is
posed in a fashion almost identical to Merian’s lizard in Plate 23 of Metamorphosis, and
both lizards gaze upwards towards a butterfly in the right-hand corner of the plate. Like
Catesby, Edwards attempted to put his animals in some sort of habitat, although neither
of these self-trained artists managed to integrate the various organisms within an image
of their native environment as successfully as did Merian.
Merian’s influence extended to the next generation of naturalists such as William
Bartram (American, 1739-1823), although possibly in a more indirect fashion.
16
Bartram
is best known for his book of travels, but he also made many drawings and paintings that
he shared with other naturalists and collectors (see Magee for an extensive review). In
these images he created a small slice of a biological community that is akin to work of
Merian’s (Figure 11). Likewise, Merian’s influence, either directly or mediated through
Catesby or Edwards, appears to have shaped the way in which birds were painted by
those such as John James Audubon (1785-1851), Prideaux John Selby (English, 1788-
1867), and John Gould (English, 1803-1882). All three artists pictured birds in a variety
of interactions: feeding, caring for their young, and in the case of Audubon, defending
against a predator. Meyers writes that Audubon challenged the traditional format by
portraying birds engaged in characteristic activities in their native environments”
15
The image of the “frog-fish” referenced was not in fact one of Merian’s images, but was one from Seba
that was added to the second edition of the book. This image was one that damaged her reputation for
accuracy, as it shows a tadpole turning into a fish.
16
It could be that Bartram was familiar with Merian’s work first-hand, but I have found no record of this.
Bartram did however credit Catesby’s influence on his work, and it is known that he owned books by both
Catesby and Edwards.
45
(Audubon, 45). Like Merian, these ornithologist/artists created the sense that their
subjects were part of a larger slice of nature and that they were of interest for more than
just their place in a classification scheme.
Whether the influence of Merian’s imagery was direct, as is clear in the cases of
Rosenhof, Catesby and Albin, or possibly indirect, as may be the case with later
naturalists such as Bartram and Audubon, the fact remains that she was the first scientific
observer to employ several pictorial devices. Merian not only pioneered images of
plant/animal interactions, she also showed in detail behaviors of small animals such as
foraging ants and predatory reptiles. She elevated the importance of the role in nature of
insects and other small organisms by showing them as life-sized and as an integral part of
their “habitat.” With the publication of Metamorphosis she pioneered the use of a folio-
sized volume to illustrate the natural history of plants and animals together in a habitat,
and she greatly enhanced the impression this book made when she added the spectacular
colors of exotic new world organisms. As pointed out by Dickenson, few color images of
New World organisms were printed prior to 1700; this changed with the publication of
Merian’s opus (146-148).
Merian’s Overlooked Text
The textual information in Merian’s books largely has been overshadowed by the
images, and very little contemporary scholarship addresses or investigates the scientific
content of her writings or their influence. One reason for the relative obscurity of
Merian’s text may be that it has been published in a limited number of languages.
Various editions of Metamorphosis were published in German, Dutch, Latin and French.
The only English translation of the full text of Metamorphosis appears in a limited edition
facsimile volume (Merian, Rücker, Stearn), which is available in about twenty libraries
worldwide. The full text of the Raupen books was published only in German. The text of
the French, Dutch and Latin editions are greatly truncated and contain virtually none of
Merian’s meticulous behavioral or ecological observations. Except for short excerpts
scattered throughout the literature on Merian’s work, no English translations of the
Raupen books are in print, and this may be one reason why the textual content of the
Raupen is even less well known than that of Metamorphosis. This overshadowing of her
studies on European insects is unfortunate, because although Metamorphosis has been
46
more widely reproduced and studied than the Raupen books, the latter volumes have
much more detailed observations of insect behavior and ecology. Working conditions in
the tropical forests of Surinam were much more difficult than in temperate Europe, and
she would have been unfamiliar with almost everything she saw upon her arrival. The
number of species alone must have been overwhelming in Surinam; tropical habitats
usually support at least seven times as many plant and insect species as temperate zone
areas. In Metamorphosis Merian devotes almost equal text to the exotic and unknown (to
Europeans) plants of Surinam as to the insects and other animals, whereas in the Raupen
book plants are considered only insofar as they provide food for the larvae. Additionally,
it must be remembered that Merian spent just under two years in Surinam in contrast to
the decades that she spent studying European insects. Because of these factors her
observations in the Raupen include information about moths and butterflies that is both
more accurate and more specific than in her more famous work. The textual content of
the Raupen is at least as important as a scientific contribution as the images, but because
it has remained relatively unstudied, Merian has remained unheralded as a naturalist,
even though she wrote some of the earliest detailed texts in the field of entomology. Her
documentation of insect reproduction and development, the effects of temperature on
insect growth, and myriad details of lepidopteran ecology and behavior seem to have
gone largely unnoticed by historians of science.
Conclusion
Over the past three decades there has been a gradual increase in scholarship on
Merian’s life and work as indicated by various biographies, facsimile volumes of her
books, exhibitions of her images, and her inclusion in reviews of natural history
illustration and women’s art. Merian’s art and personal history have provided fertile
ground for a number of art historians and scholars of gender studies. However, few
scholars have studied her images with an eye to the scientific content, and even fewer
have investigated the content of her text. The quantity and quality of ecological and
behavioral observations that she published were considerable, particularly in light of the
era in which it was produced. The images in Merian’s books not only changed pictorial
conventions for depicting certain aspects of nature, they influenced how plants and
animals were regarded. The format she used encourages the viewer to consider where an
47
organism lives and what it does rather than where it should reside in a classification
scheme. The complex images in the Raupen and Metamorphosis challenged naturalists to
look at plant/animal relationships and animal behavior. Merian’s portrayals of even very
small insects were colorful dramas, drawing attention to them in a new way.
Paradoxically, the aesthetic quality of her artwork may have contributed to the
idea that Merian was not a serious naturalist. A contributor to an important monograph on
Merian’s work writes that Merian’s accomplishment was in popularizing what was
already known rather than making new discoveries (Ludwig 60) and that Merian placed
utmost emphasis on overall aesthetic effect” (61). Close reading of Merian’s text and
examination of her detailed images show that this is not the case. Merian’s contributions
often have been treated by historians as an interesting side note to the main pathway of
events of her time: the study of systematics and the taxonomic organization of organisms.
A more accurate view Merian’s work would be to see it as a significant tributary feeding
into a growing stream of knowledge, and one whose presence altered the course of the
main stream by introducing ecological content. By illuminating interactions among
organisms and painting communities, Maria Sibylla Merian demonstrated that nature is
most interesting when viewed outside of confining little boxes of collections and
categories.
Sources
Abbot, John. Histoire Naturelle Des Lépidoptères Les Plus Rares De Georgie. Contenant
Leurs Caractères Systématiques, Les Particularités De Leurs Différentes
Métamorphoses, Avec Les Plantes Qui Leur Servent D'aliment. London, 1797.
Print.
Albin, Eleazar. A Natural History of English Insects: Illustrated with a Hundred Copper
Plates, Curiously Engraven from the Life. London: Published by the author, 1720.
Print.
Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands:
Containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants:
Particularly, the Forest-Trees, Shrubs, and Other Plants, Not Hitherto Described,
or Very Incorrectly Figured by Authors: Together with Their Descriptions in
English and French: To Which, Are Added Observations on the Air, Soil, and
Waters: With Remarks Upon Agriculture, Grain, Pulse, Roots, &C.: To the
Whole, Is Prefixed a New and Correct Map of the Countries Treated Of. 2 vols.
London: Printed at the expense of the author and sold by W. Innys, 1729. Print.
48
Chaplin, Joyce. Mark Catesby, a Skeptical Newtonian in America.” Empire's Nature:
Mark Catesby's New World Vision. Eds. Meyers, Amy, and Margaret Pritchard.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 34-90. Print.
Cobb, Matthew. Generation: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unraveled the
Secrets of Sex, Life, and Growth. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. Print.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.
Dickenson, Victoria. Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New
World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Print.
Edwards, George. An Account of the Frog-Fish of Surinam, Addressed to the Royal
Society.” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775) 51 (1759): 653-57. Print.
---. A Natural History of Uncommon Birds : And of Some Other Rare and Undescribed
Animals, Quadrupeds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, &C., Exhibited in Two Hundred
and Ten Copper-Plates, from Designs Copied Immediately from Nature, and
Curiously Coloured after Life, with a Full and Accurate Description of Each
Figure, to Which Is Added a Brief and General Idea of Drawing and Painting in
Water-Colours; with Instructions for Etching on Copper with Aqua Fortis;
Likewise Some Thoughts on the Passage of Birds; and Additions to Many Subjects
Described in This Work. 4 vols. London: Printed for the author at the College of
Physicians in Warwick-Lane, 1743. Print.
---. Gleanings of Natural History: Exhibiting Figures of Quadrupeds, Birds, Insects,
Plants &C., Most of Which Have Not, Till Now, Been Either Figured or
Described: With Descriptions of Seventy Different Subjects. 3 vols. London:
Printed for the author at Royal College of Physicians, 1758. Print.
Egerton, Frank N. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 21: Réaumur and His
History of Insects.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 87 3 (2006):
212-24. Print.
Etheridge, Kay. “Loathsome beasts: Images of Reptiles and Amphibians in Art and
Science.” Origins of Scientific Learning: Essays on Culture and Knowledge in
Early Modern Europe. Eds. Sara L. French and Kay Etheridge. Lewiston, N.Y.:
Edwin Mellen Press, 2007. 63-88. Print.
Goedaert, Johannes. Metamorphosis Et Historia Naturalis Insectorum. 3 vols.
Middleburg: J. Fierenes, 1662-1669. Print.
Harris, Moses. The Aurelian. A Natural History of English Moths and Butterflies,
Together with the Plants on Which They Feed. Also a Faithful Account of Their
Respective Changes, Their Usual Haunts When in the Winged State, and Their
Standard Names as Established by the Society of Aurelians. London: published by
the author and sold by J. Edwards, 1766. Print.
La Cépède, M. le comte de. Histoire Naturelle De La Cépède, Comprenant Les Cétacés,
Les Quadrupèdes Ovipares, Les Serpents Et Les Poissons. 2 vols. Paris: Furne et
cie, 1847. Print.
Ludwig, Heidrun. “The Raupenbuch: A Popular Natural History.Maria Sibylla Merian,
1647-1717: Artist and Naturalist. Ed. Kurt Wettengl. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag
Gerd Hatje, 1998. 52-67. Print.
Magee, Judith. The Art and Science of William Bartram. University Park, PA:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. Print.
49
Merian, Maria Sibylla. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium Amsterdam:
Published by the author, 1705. Print.
---. Schmetterlinge, Kãfer Und Andere Insekten: Leningrader Studienbuch. Ed. Wolf
Beer. Luzern: Reich, 1976. Print.
Merian, Maria Sibylla. Der Raupen Wunderbareverwandelung Und Sonderbare Blumen-
Nahrung. Nuremburg Maria Sibylla Merian (Johannes Andreas Graff), 1679.
Print.
---. Der Raupen Wunderbareverwandelung Und Sonderbare Blumen-Nahrung ... Andrer
Theil. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Maria Sibylla Merian (David Funken), 1683. Print.
---. Der Raupen Wunderbareverwandelung Und Sonderbare Blumen-Nahrung ... Deerde
Em Lattste Deel. Issued with 1713/14 volumes. Uncertain if issued as separate
volume ed. Amsterdam: Maria Sibylla Merian (Gerard Valck), 1717. Print.
---. Der Rupsen Begin, Voedzel En Wonderbaare Verandering : Waar in De Oorspronk,
Spys En Gestaltverwisseling: Als Ook De Tyd, Plaats En Eigenschappen Der
Rupsen, Wormen, Kapellen, Uiltjes, Vliegen, En Andere Diergelyke Bloedelooze
Beesjes Vertoond Word: Ten Dienst Van Alle Liefhebbers Der Insecten, Kruiden,
Bloemen En Gewassen. Amsterdam. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1713. Print.
---. Erucarum Ortus, Alimentum Et Paradoxa Metamorphosis in Qua Origo Pabulum,
Transformatio, Nec Non Tempus, Locus Proprietates Erucqrum Vermium
Papilionum, Phalaenarum, Muscarum, Aliorumque Hujusmodi Exsanguium
Animalculorum Exhibentur. Amsterdam: Joannem Oosterwyk, 1717. Print.
---. Histoire Générale Des Insectes De Surinam Et De Toute L'europe, Contenant Leurs
Descriptions, Leurs Figures, Leurs Differentes Metamorphoses, De Même Que
Les Descriptions Des Plantes, Fleurs & Fruits, Dont Ils Se Nourissent. Paris: L.C.
Desnos, 1771. Print.
---. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Amsterdam: Published by the author,
1705. Print.
---. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Amsterdam: Joannem Oosterwyk, 1719.
Print.
---. Neues Blumenbuch. Nuremburg: Johannes Andrea Grassen, 1680. Print.
---, Elisabeth Rücker, and William T. Stearn. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.
2 vols. London: Pion, 1980-1982. Print.
Miall, Louis Compton. The Early Naturalists, Their Lives and Work, 1530-1789. London:
Macmillan, 1912. Print.
Meyers, Amy R.W. Observations of an American Woodsman: Audubon as Field
Naturalist. John James Audubon: The Watercolors for the Birds of America.
Eds. Annette Blaugrund, and Theodore E. Stebbins. New York: Villard Books,
1993. Print.
Meyers, Amy R.W. The Perfecting of Natural History.” Mark Catesby's Natural History
of America: the Watercolours from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Ed.
Henrietta McBurney. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 1997. 11-25. Print.
Petiver, James Jacobi Petiveri Opera, Historiam Naturalem Spectantia: Containing
Several Thousand Figures of Birds, Beasts ... To Which Is Now Added Seventeen
Curious Tracts. 2 vols. London: Printed for John Millan Bookseller 1767. Print.
Pieters, Florence F. J. M., and Diny Winthagen. Maria Sibylla Merian, Naturalist and
Artist (16471717): A Commemoration on the Occasion of the 350th Anniversary
of Her Birth. Archives of Natural History 26 1 (1999): 1-18. Print.
50
Réaumur, René-Antoine Ferchault de. Mémoires Pour Servir À L'histoire Des Insectes.
Paris: De l'imprimerie royale, 1734. Print.
Rösel von Rosenhof, August Johann. Der Monatlich-Herausgegebenen Insecten-
Belustigung Nuremberg: Johann Joseph Fleischmann, 1746. Print.
---. Historia Naturalis Ranarum Nostratium: In Qua Omnes Earum Proprietates,
Praesertim Quae Ad Generationem Ipsarum Pertinent, Fusius Enarrantur.
Nuremberg: Johann Joseph Fleischmann, 1758. Print.
Rücker, Elisabeth. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717. Nuremberg: Germanisches
Nationalmuseum, 1967. Print.
Rücker, Elisabeth and William T. Stearn. Maria Sibylla Merian in Surinam. London:
Prion, 1982. Print.
Schiebinger, Londa L. The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.
Segal, Sam. “Maria Sibylla Merian as a Flower Painter.” Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-
1717: Artist and Naturalist. Ed. Kurt Wettengl. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd
Hatje, 1998. 68-93. Print.
Stearn, William T. Carl Linnaeus's Acquaintance with Tropical Plants.” Taxon 37 3
(1988): 776-81. Print.
Todd, Kim. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Orlando:
Harcourt, 2007. Print.
Valiant, Sharon. “Maria Sibylla Merian: Recovering an 18th-Century Legend”
Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 3 (1993): 467-79. Print.
51
Figure 1. Metamorphosis of the silkworm Bombyx mori (Merian, Der Raupen 1679,
Plate1). This image was not colored by Merian. Image courtesy of the Department of
Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.
52
Figure 2. In Metamorphosis et historia naturalis Insectorum (Goedaert Plate 77). Image
courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.
53
Figure 3. Spiders and ants (circa 1704). Maria Sibylla Merian. Pen and ink with
watercolor and bodycolor on vellum. This image is the basis of Plate 18 in
Metamorphosis (Merian 1705). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum.
54
Figure 4. Parasitic ichneumonid wasps are shown emerging from the caterpillar.
(Merian, Der Raupen 1679, Plate 45). This image was not colored by Merian. Image
courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.
55
Figure 5. Frog with tadpoles and eggs, hyacinth and insects (circa 1704). Maria Sibylla
Merian. Pen and ink with watercolor and bodycolor on vellum. This image is the basis of
Plate 56 in Metamorphosis (Merian 1705). Photograph © The Trustees of the British
Museum.
56
Figure 6. Images from Merian’s Metamorphosis reproduced in Historiam naturalem
spectantia (Petiver Plate 151). Image courtesy of the Department of Library Services,
American Museum of Natural History.
57
Figure 7. In A Natural History of English insects (Albin Plate 1). This edition was a re-
issue of the original 1720 volume. Similarities to Merian’s image of the same species
(Figure 4) can be noted. Image courtesy of the Department of Library Services,
American Museum of Natural History.
58
Figure 8. Frontispiece from sel von Rosenhofs Historia Naturalis Ranarum
Nostratium. Image courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum
of Natural History.
59
Figure 9. Boa with cassava plant and moth (circa 1704). Maria Sibylla Merian. Pen and
ink with watercolor and bodycolor on vellum. This image is the basis for Plate 5 in
Metamorphosis (Merian 1705). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum.
60
Figure 10. In The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (Catesby
Plate 49). In this and other images Catesby arranges animals on plants in a manner
similar to that of Merian (see Figure 14). Image courtesy of the Department of Library
Services, American Museum of Natural History.
61
Figure 11. Drawing with watercolor by William Bartram, from the Fothergill Collection
(produced between 1756-1788). Bartram depicts a lizard hiding under a seedpod while a
frog is consumed by the predatory snake. Other organisms populate the image, giving it
the sense of a small scene from nature. Image courtesy of the British Natural History
Museum.
In : Etheridge, K. 2011. Maria Sibylla Merian: The first ecologist?
V. Molinari and D. Andreolle, Editors, Women and Science: Figures
and representations - 17th century to present, Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne. Pp 31-49.
... In the year 1660, 13-year-old Maria Sibylla Merian roamed the gardens and countryside of Germany taking detailed notes about caterpillars, moths, butterflies and their interactions with host plants, accompanying her notes were elaborate multimedia depictions of insect and plant life cycles ( Figure 1). Merian's efforts in documenting interspecies relationships are regarded as early contributions to modern natural history and ecology, although the term 'ecology' was coined approximately two centuries later (Etheridge, 2011a(Etheridge, , 2011bPieters & Winthagen, 1999). Her influence can be seen in the work of naturalists such as John James Audubon (Etheridge, 2015;Palmeri, 2017). ...
Article
Full-text available
Engle and Conant’s productive disciplinary engagement (PDE) framework has significantly advanced the study of learning in mathematics and science. This artilce revisits PDE through the lens of critical education research. Our analysis synthesizes two themes of power: epistemic diversity, and historicity and identity. We argue that these themes, when integrated into PDE, strengthen it as a tool for design and analysis of disciplinary learning in relation to power and personhood, and describe the broadened framework of connective and productive disciplinary engagement (CPDE). By comparing and contrasting the use of PDE and CPDE in relation to two cases of classroom learning—for science, Warren et al.’s metamorphosis and for mathematics, Godfrey and O’Connor’s measurement—we demonstrate how CPDE surfaces issues of history, power, and culture that may otherwise be overlooked by PDE alone. In particular, we analyze how CPDE makes visible unseen identities and generative resources of disciplinary knowing and doing among minoritized students. We discuss how the revised framework redresses epistemic injustice experienced by minoritized learners held to the narrow rubric of western epistemologies and compels close attention to the diversity of human activity in mathematics and science. Further, we elaborate how it provides a structure for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers to design and analyze learning environments as safeguarding the rightful presence of minoritized learners in STEM classrooms and beyond.
Chapter
Full-text available
In 1699 a 52 year old artist/naturalist embarked in Amsterdam for a two month sailing voyage to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. Maria Sibylla Merian undertook this voyage specifically to study the insects in the tropical jungle and to document their metamorphoses and food plants, a study which today would be considered ecology. By this time in her life Merian was a renowned naturalist, and had published two books on European caterpillars, moths and butterflies. The book that would result from this extraordinary undertaking, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium1, was the first to show New World plants and animals together in colorful images, and it made a strong impression on Mark Catesby as it did on other naturalists who followed her. Along with her volumes on European caterpillars, Merian’s book on New World organisms, like that of Catesby’s, changed the way in which the natural world was perceived and portrayed.
Article
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) made his first acquaintance with a tropical flora about 1744 when studying a large collection of herbarium specimens and drawings made in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) by Paul Hermann, and on these he based his "Flora Zeylanica" (1747). Otherwise, down to the publication of the Species plantarum (1753), his knowledge of tropical plants was based on a limited number in cultivation and on a large number of illustrations in the works of Kaempfer, van Rheede, J. and C. Commelin, Merian, Plumier, Petiver, Sloane, and Rumpfis, but relatively little on herbarium material. These works provide iconotypes for many 1753 Linnaean binomials. In 1758 Linnaeus bought Patrick Browne's Jamaican herbarium. He also received specimens from former students visiting tropical countries. Long before then European trading activities had dispersed some ruderal plants from port to port, making them almost pantropical. Collections often contained specimens of these. Hence Linnaeus tended to regard the tropical floras as rather uniform over the world instead of regionally very diverse. Nevertheless he devised a methodology and a nomenclature fundamental for the later development of tropical botany.
Article
Maria Sibylla Merian was born on 2 April 1647 in Frankfurt (Germany) and grew up among artists. She was one of the first who studied the metamorphoses of insects, preceded by the Dutch naturalists Johannes Goedaert (1620–1668) and Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680). From 1674 she began to investigate these metamorphoses systematically, resulting in her first scientific book Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung [The wondrous transformation of caterpillars and their remarkable diet of flowers]. The first part of this book was published in Nuremberg in 1679, containing 50 plates in quarto, all engraved by herself, and the second part in Frankfurt in 1683. Now she had discovered her definitive style, depicting the life cycle of a butterfly on the caterpillar's host plant in natural size on one plate, in a beautiful lay-out. In 1685 she entered a Labadist cloister in Friesland, joined by her mother and her two daughters. However, as early as 1691 she left this cloister and settled in Amsterdam. From here she undertook an expedition to Surinam in 1699 to study its superb natural history, accompanied by her younger daughter. She stayed there for only 21 months because she became seriously ill, but she recovered and the publication of her folio volume on the metamorphoses of Surinam insects in 1705 made her worldfamous among natural scientists and art historians alike. However, she was also criticized and the reasons for this are discussed. An additional letter by Merian (17 letters were hitherto known) was discovered in a Parisian collection.
Mark Catesby, a Skeptical Newtonian in America Empire's Nature: Mark Catesby's New World Vision
  • Joyce Chaplin
Chaplin, Joyce. " Mark Catesby, a Skeptical Newtonian in America. " Empire's Nature: Mark Catesby's New World Vision. Eds. Meyers, Amy, and Margaret Pritchard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 34-90. Print.