Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Praying? Or Preying?

If you think this otherworldly creature is elevating its foremost extremities into the sky in supplication, you are not alone, as those who first lay eyes on it shared your impression and named it Praying Mantis.

Falls Du den Eindruck hast, daß diese ungwöhnliche Kreatur ihre Vorderbeine im Gebet gen Himmel streckt, bist Du nicht alleine, denn die ersten Beobachter teilten diesen Eindruck, und tauften sie Gottesanbeterin.

Other than admiring bees, butterflies, and moths, and disliking the biting and stinging kind of insects, I know little about these animals, but when I discovered this stick-like critter last summer, my curiosity was piqued, and I set out to remedy my ignorance. With about 925,000 known representatives, insects represent the largest class of the animal kingdom, but entomologists, those scholars enthralled by all six-legged things that creep, crawl, leap, bound, or fly, suspect that this paltry sum represents a mere 20 % of extant species.

With regard to the family of mantids, experts have identified 2,500 different kinds. Seven have been detected in Colorado, and among those, five are native, two introduced. As is often the case, the non-native individuals outperform the others, so chances are that what I saw, and what you see in these images, are specimens of the European Mantid, endowed with the Latin name Mantis religiosa, which is no less prayerful than the common appellation.

Außer Bienen, Schmetterlinge und Motten zu bewundern, und beißende und stechende Insekten nicht zu mögen, weiß ich wenig über diese Tierchen, aber als ich vergangenen Sommer diesen stöckchenartigen Repräsentant entdeckte, wurde meine Neugier geweckt, und ich versuchte, meinem Unwissen Abhilfe zu schaffen. Mit etwa 925.000 bekannten Vertretern stellen Insekten die größte Klasse im Tierreich dar, doch Entomologen, diejenigen Gelehrten, die sich für alle Sechsbeiner interessieren, die kriechen, krabbeln, springen, hüpfen und fliegen, gehen davon aus, daß diese Zahl lediglich 20 % aller existierenden Arten repräsentiert.

Was die Familie der Mantiden angeht, haben Experten 2.500 verschiedene Arten identifiziert. Sieben sind in Colorado zu finden, und von diesen kommen fünf natürlich vor, und zwei sind eingeführt worden. Wie so oft der Fall ist, gedeihen die letzteren besser, und deshalb sind diejenigen, die wir jetzt zusammen in diesen Photos sehen, wahrscheinlich Exemplare der europäischen Mantiden, deren lateinischer Name, Mantis religiosa, nicht weniger fromm ist als der allgemeine.

Now, let’s imagine you were another hexapod. You would quickly learn that what resembles arms raised into the heavens in prayer actually represents efficient utensils employed in arresting your locomotion and in dismembering you, before channeling you into said animal’s intestinal tract in support of its metabolism. Although this predatory arthropod is celebrated by some gardeners (and, for that matter, offered in plant nurseries and garden catalogs) for ridding their patches of unwanted pests, it does not discern between beneficial and undesired organisms and devours all fellow six-legged beings indiscriminately, if not cannibalistically. While the male is in the blissful, oblivious throes of reproduction, the female, if particularly hungry, might not hesitate to decapitate the one that ensures the fertilization of her eggs (apparently, he is able to do the deed without use of his head).

If this narrative strikes you as suitable to be told as a scary campfire tale, I concur, and even though I’m glad to have finally encountered and photographed a few of these strange, slender, statuesque creatures, what little I learned about their life cycle and behavior confirmed that some things are better left to the imagination, and that—at times—ignorance is bliss.

Nun stell Dir mal vor, Du wärst auch ein Sechsbeiner. Du würdest schnell merken, daß die betenden Hände, die sich in den Himmel zu erstrecken scheinen, in Realität wirksame Werkzeuge darstellen, die dazu dienen, Deine Fortbewegung zu hindern und Dich zu zerlegen, um Dich dann dem Verdauungstrakt dieses Tieres zuzuführen, und seinen Stoffwechsel zu unterstützen. Auch wenn einige Gärtner, weil sie ihre Beete gerne ungezieferfrei hätten, diesen räuberischen Gliederfüßer preisen (der übrigens in Gärtnereien und Gartenkatalogen zum Verkauf angeboten wird), unterscheidet er nicht zwischen Nützlingen und Schädlingen, sondern verschlingt alles, was sich auf sechs Beinen fortbewegt. Und das nicht nur wahllos, sondern manchmal sogar kannibalistisch. Während sich das Männchen selbstvergessen und beglückt der Fortpflanzung hingibt, mag es sein, daß das Weibchen, wenn es besonders hungrig ist, demjenigen den Kopf abbeißt, der für die Befruchtung ihrer Eier sorgt (anscheinend kann er den Akt auch ohne Betätigung seines Kopfes vollenden).

Falls Du der Meinung bist, daß sich diese Schilderungen dazu eignen, am Lagerfeuer als Gruselgeschichte erzählt werden zu können, stimme ich Dir zu, und auch wenn ich froh bin, endlich diese seltsamen, schlanken, standbildhaften Wesen getroffen und photographiert zu haben, bin ich zu der Einsicht gelangt, daß das Wenige, das ich über ihren Lebenszyklus und ihr Verhalten gelernt habe, bestätigt, daß manche Dinge lieber der Phantasie überlassen bleiben, und daß Unwissen manchmal ein Segen ist.

Some Like It Hot

Summer was hot in more ways than one. While most humans prefer privacy during their copulatory acts, many animals have no such compunctions. They do it in bright daylight, under the gaze of anyone not bothered by engaging in voyeurism. Even if one does not seek to be privy to these amorous alliances, one can’t help but stumble on them—or, as it were, nearly roll over them with one’s bike.

Der Sommer war in mehr als einer Hinsicht heiß. Wohingegen sich die meisten Menschen im Privaten paaren, haben viele Tiere keine solchen Hemmungen. Sie tun es am hellichten Tag unter den Blicken derer, denen es nichts ausmacht, Voyeurismus zu praktizieren. Selbst wenn man es nicht anstrebt, Einblicke in diese Liebesangelegenheiten zu gewinnen, ist es einem manchmal unmöglich, nicht über sie zu stolpern, bzw. sie fast mit seinem Rad zu überfahren.

To augment the heat of their loins, grasshoppers (in this case, pairs of Plains Lubber Grasshoppers) turn up the temperature of their lovemaking by absorbing additional warmth from the pavement that has been baked by the summer sun, and they become oblivious to anything and anyone in their surroundings.

Um die Hitze ihrer Lenden noch zu steigern, erhöhen Heuschrecken die Temperatur ihres Liebesspiels, indem sie zusätzliche Wärme vom Straßenpflaster absorbieren, das von der Sommersonne gebacken wurde, und werden dabei so selbstvergessen, daß sie nichts und niemanden in ihrer Umgebung wahrnehmen.

Did I mention that this summer was steaming hot? 😊

Habe ich bereits erwähnt, daß dieser Sommer besonders heiß war? 😊