Main content

Maria Merian

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.

Picture: Belly-ache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) with metamorphosis of a giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), created by Maria Sibylla Merian and Joseph Mulder, Credit: GRI Digital Collections

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

Available now

27 minutes

Last on

New Year's Day 2018 01:32GMT


  • Christmas Day 2017 20:32GMT
  • Christmas Day 2017 21:32GMT
  • Boxing Day 2017 05:32GMT
  • Boxing Day 2017 07:32GMT
  • Boxing Day 2017 15:32GMT
  • Boxing Day 2017 18:32GMT
  • Wed 27 Dec 2017 03:32GMT
  • Sun 31 Dec 2017 02:32GMT
  • New Year's Day 2018 01:32GMT



The eclipses, spacecraft and astronauts changing our view of the Universe

The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry

The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry

A pair of scientific sleuths answer your perplexing questions. Ask them anything!