Insects are quite fascinating little creatures, and they were quite intimidating back when people knew little about where they came from or their reproduction.
But thanks to Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the world’s first ecologists, we’ve learned so much more about the life of insects over the last few centuries.
Born in Germany in 1647, Maria loved collecting insects as a young girl and taking them home to illustrate them. Her father was a professional illustrator of the 17th century, and she inherited his skills.
After her father’s passing, her mother married her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, who was a painter. Maria studied under him as well and continued collecting insects to illustrate wildlife. She had a peculiar interest in caterpillars and would make remarkable discoveries about them later in life.
In 1665, Maria married Johann Andreas Graff, an apprentice of her stepfather’s. After becoming a wife and mother, women like Maria were typically expected to stay home and focus on household duties. But Maria kept working and drawing, eventually publishing her three-volume book series of flower illustrations, “Book of Flowers,” between 1675 and 1680.
After the birth of her second daughter, Maria continued studying caterpillars and learned about their metamorphosis into butterflies. She wrote about this process and illustrated it in detail in her two-volume book, “Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers.” It was a major contribution to ecology.
In the 1699s, Maria and Johann divorced before she set sail for an expedition in Suriname, a country in South America. Joining Maria was her daughter, Dorothea. They had no male companion traveling with them. This journey made her one of the first women to travel for scientific research.
Once in Suriname, Maria and Dorothea made their way through the intense jungles to study its ecosystem. She documented several species and insects, mainly focusing on the jungle’s caterpillars and butterflies. Maria created many beautiful and informative illustrations despite the intense climate in Suriname.
Everything Maria learned was documented in her 1705 book, “The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname.” It was an incredibly impressive accomplishment, and Maria taught the ecology world all about how the insects in Suriname depended on and contributed to intricate ecosystems. This was an especially remarkable journey, as insects’ origin and life cycle were taboo during that time.