Maria Sibylla Merian

Explorer, artist, entomologist and activist

contributed by Zoe Getman-Pickering @Herbivory1


Animals, Biodiversity, Consumption, Ecology, Europe, Field, Forest, Fundamental research, Grassland, Historical figure, Natural history, Observational, Plants, Rainforest, Social justice, South America, Species richness, Systematics, Terrestrial, Woman


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Presentation Notes

Researcher’s Background

Maria was an entomologist and scientific illustrator from the late sixteen hundreds who focused on the interactions between plants and insects. 


Biography in brief

Merian was born into a family of artists in Germany in 1647. She spent her life observing, rearing, and illustrating insects and their interactions with plants. She traveled with her daughter to South America to continue her work. Through her work she independently disproved spontaneous generation. She also contributed key scientific concepts such as phenotypic plasticity, and specialist and generalist herbivores. She discovered many new insect species including parasitoids and bird-eating spiders, and linked different life stages of insects together and identified that they were a single organism. After her death, much of her research was discredited due to her gender, people’s inability to believe in some of her discoveries such as the aforementioned bird-eating spiders, and false ‘discoveries’ that were incorrectly linked to her. 


Axes of identity & underrepresentation

Francesco Redi and Lazzaro Spallanzani are both credited with disproving spontaneous generation, but Merian was not, likely due to her gender.

Research Overview

Take home message of study

Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the first to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation, she also described host specificity in herbivores and phenotypic plasticity. She described many new insect species and their interactions with their host plants. 

Maria Sibylla Merian was a brilliant scientist and artist who first discovered and described foundational concepts of modern entomology and ecology. 


Study system

A detailed drawing by Maria Sibylla Merian of insects that she reared, showcasing both her artistic and scientific tallent.

Key Research Points

Main contributions

This illustration showcases Maria’s artistic talent and attention to scientific accuracy. Maria described and illustrated many new species of insects and their host plants. In her rearing and observation of insects she described numerous ecological and entomological principals that are the basis of research today. 


Societal Relevance

Merian used her privileged position to write moving articles on the injustice of slavery and how horribly native people and African slaves were treated in the Americas. She also noted how they would use seeds to abort children, both as proof of the horrible conditions and to suggest that women could control their own reproduction. 


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