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The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars

Naomi Alderman explores the life and legacy of the first field ecologist, a woman named Maria Merian, who developed the theory of metamorphosis in the 1600s.

Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science.

Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphosis, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival.

Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today's biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change.

Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens.

Producer: Graihagh Jackson.

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30 minutes