Did you know that during medieval times people believed that butterflies were really witches in disguise that caused mischief? People believed butterflies were nothing more than disgusting, vile, and evil creatures, most definitely not worth studying. Maria Merian, a German scientist and scientific illustrator born in the 1600s, didn’t believe that, she was fascinated with butterflies. Her fascination led to an impressive life long career (especially for a woman) where she combined science and art to convey the life cycles of insects and reptiles.
A few examples of Maria’s scientific illustrations.
Maria Merian thought differently, she disregarded societal expectations of the 1600s, her discoveries on metamorphosis changed conventional ideas, her observations still stand up today, and her findings set the foundation for new scientific developments on the life cycle of butterflies.
Maria Merian’s life in 1600s Germany was very different from our modern day lives, women never ventured far from their hearths, and if they strayed it certainly was not to pursue a career in science. Maria was born on April 2, 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany (Ignotofsky 11). Germany was a place of chaos in the mid-1600s, though her own family did not struggle financially, many German citizens were not so lucky. Just a year after Maria was born the Thirty Years War ended, leaving Germany in great distress. The vineyards of Germany were dying due to heavy rains; hunger and poverty were rampant. Germany was in such chaos that many people believed Judgement Day was coming (Friedewald 9). Maria may not have suffered from poverty and hunger, but her life was not without challenges. Maria’s mother despised her daughter’s interests in science and art, Maria was expected to be one thing- a housewife (Friedewald 21). However, Maria had other ideas. Against her mother’s wishes she continued to paint, a skill she learned from her stepfather, and follow her great yearning for knowledge.
Silkworms depicted by Maria Merian.
Maria Merian started her path to becoming the first female entomologist at age thirteen when she was given her first caterpillars- silkworms from china. Silkworms were not viewed negatively since they spun valuable silk, making them a luxury item; unlike the “evil” caterpillars in Germany that just crawled about. As she studied the silkworms she became curious about these caterpillars that everyone called evil. She wondered if the caterpillars in her yard underwent a transformation like the silkworms (Friedewald 28). Though she could be accused of witchcraft if discovered, she began to collect caterpillars in secret (Engle 6). She placed her caterpillars in jars and observed their behavior day by day. She used her painting skills to record her observations through very detailed scientific illustrations; thus beginning her path to becoming the first recognized female entomologist and making discoveries on the metamorphosis of butterflies in their natural habitats (Engle 7).
Many beliefs and myths surrounded insects in 1600s’ Germany, Maria’s discoveries on metamorphosis dramatically changed how butterflies were viewed. It was a common belief that insects were created through spontaneous generation, meaning they spawned spontaneously from dirt (Friedewald 27). Since the Germans regarded insects as evil and disgusting, associated with witches and the devil, butterflies were called “butter birds” (buttervogel). The name “butter birds” originated from the belief that witches transformed into butterflies and flew about causing mischief and curdling cream (Friedewald 27). If Maria had been discovered collecting butterflies, many would believe she was a witch, only evil beings could care for such vile creatures.
Maria Merian found that spontaneous generation was not true, that butterflies were not witches or creatures spawning from the dirt, but they came into the world from a transformation called metamorphosis (Friedewald 28). Metamorphosis is the transformation process from an immature stage to an adult stage in insects or amphibians (Friedewald 29). She noticed that the caterpillars she observed followed the same basic life cycle: a small caterpillar would hatch from an egg, the caterpillar would eat for weeks while repeatedly molting its skin until finally a chrysalis was formed (she called the chrysalis a date pit) (Friedewald 29). A few weeks would pass and the caterpillar would emerge from its chrysalis as a butterfly, or as she called it, a “summer-bird.”
By observing caterpillars in their natural habitat, she also found caterpillars received their nutrition from specific host plants. She observed that female butterflies of the same species would lay their eggs on the same species of host plant so the larva wouldn’t starve to death (Friedewald 15). Take for example the monarch butterfly, the female only lays her eggs on a species of milkweed from the Asclepias genus. Ingesting milkweed as a caterpillar provides a natural defense against birds that might otherwise eat them. Milkweed is poisonous to birds, causing them to get very sick or die. The milkweed poisons accumulate in the caterpillars’ bodies and the poison remains throughout the adult stage, leaving predators to avoid them completely.
In 1679, she presented her discoveries by publishing her first book, Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers. She filled the book with her own scientific illustrations, these illustrations were a collection of a lifetime’s work. Her art emphasized the caterpillar in its natural habitat. The illustrations, in great detail, commonly depicted a species of butterfly with its host plant, egg, larva, pupa, and included scientific notes (Friedewald 34). Though detailed, her first book had no real impact on the public or scientific community, it wasn’t until after publishing her second book, Metamorphosis insectourm Surinsmesium in 1705, that she became fairly well known in the scientific community (Friedewald 35). In the years following the publishing of her second book, Maria became the first recognized female entomologist, and one of the leading entomologists, of the early 1700s.
Life cycle of a butterfly.
In today’s world Maria Merian’s discoveries on metamorphosis are considered scientific fact. Today it is understood, true to what Maria discovered, that butterflies mate and lay their eggs in the spring through the fall months, depending on region and species. The egg stage lasts a few weeks, unless the egg is laid in the fall, then it will go into diapause (a period of suspended development) throughout the winter months, and hatch in the spring. From the egg hatches the larva of a butterfly, otherwise known as a caterpillar. The larva spends its days eating its host plant and molting its skin until it is ready to form its chrysalis (Todd 23). From the chrysalis a butterfly emerges and the cycle begins again.
A Caterpillar molting.
Not all of what we know today about butterflies was understood in the 1600s by Maria; new developments in the knowledge of what occurs to caterpillars during metamorphosis have been unearthed. Firstly, modern entomologists now understand what happens in a caterpillar’s body as it goes through metamorphosis. From the time a caterpillar hatches to the fourth time a caterpillar molts its skin, the caterpillar has high levels of a juvenile hormone; without high levels of this hormone the caterpillar could break down into a mess of cells at any time (Baumann et al). After roughly the fourth molt, also known as the fifth instar, the juvenile hormone levels are very low, thus, the caterpillar stops eating and begins to search for a location to begin its transformation into the chrysalis (or pupa). At its chosen location, the caterpillar produces a silk pad from a gland below its head and attaches its tail end to the pad. Hanging from the plant the caterpillar slowly twists as the skin splits from the head and continues to molt upwards. The old skin is replaced by a durable shell, the chrysalis. The chrysalis is often a brown or green color so that the pupa camouflages into its environment well (Scott 236).
We also now understand what happens inside a chrysalis. When a caterpillar turns into a pupa, the tissue and cells are broken down and rebuilt into the imago (an imago is a fully developed insect, in this case a butterfly). When the pupa is fully mature, the outer skin separates from the butterfly and cracks open. When the butterfly first emerges its wings are wet, small, and wrinkled and the abdomen is inflated with fluid. The butterfly hangs upside down and pumps fluid from its abdomen and into the wings causing them to expand and harden (Todd 50). After a few hours the butterfly can fly. Metamorphosis is complete.
Maria Merian on German currency.
Today, butterflies are no longer regarded as witches trying to spoil our butter, but beautiful pollinators that benefit us all. Modern ideas regarding insects have changed dramatically, no longer are butterflies viewed as evil, vile creatures; much of this change can be accredited to Maria Merian. Today, Maria’s work lives on, her scientific illustrations are hung as art in museums and in classrooms. Her discoveries on butterfly metamorphosis in their natural habitat are popularly taught in classrooms around the world. Her books and illustrations continue to inspire generations of scientists interested in the study of insects. Maria’s story tells us how science and beauty can be found everywhere, you just need to open your eyes and look.
Friedewald, Boris. A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist and Scientist. New York: Prestel, 2015. Print.
Todd, Kim. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. Print.
Ignotofsky, Rachel. Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2016. Print.
Engle, Margarita. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. New York: Henry Holt, 2010. Print.
Scott, James A. The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992. Print
Baumann, Aaron, et al. “Paralogous Genes Involved in Juvenile Hormone Action in Drosophila Melanogaster.” National Center for Biotechnology. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.