Plate 18 from Metamorphosis by Maria Sibylla Merian

In Plate 18 from Metamorphosis, Merian portrays the ruthless nature of the food chain. (Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium)

Most European butterflies didn’t even have a scientific name when Merian began to study them, nor were they properly classified before Linnaeus imposed his order on to the natural world many years after her death. Merian was not interested in classification, as she explained to an English collector, but “only in the formation, propagation, and metamorphosis of creatures ... and the nature of their diet.” Almost two centuries before the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term Oecologie—ecology—Merian published plates that depicted ecological communities.

Take plate 18 from her Metamorphosis which shows the branch of a guava tree almost defoliated by leafcutter and army ants which are crawling up the stem. A few ants attack a small spider and a cockroach, while a tarantula eats a hummingbird. There are different species of spiders and yet another tarantula with an egg sac. This was no garden of Eden but a relentless battle. One hundred and fifty years before Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, Merian knew nature well enough to depict it as a constant struggle for survival.
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