Maria Merian and herpetology

by Ann Sylph on

Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was a trailblazing entomologist, scientific traveller, artist and herpetologist. She is increasingly well known for her work on insects and their life-cycles but she also planned to publish a book on reptiles. Her ‘reptile book’ was never published but she did include a number of amphibians and reptiles in her great work on the insects of Surinam and these are the illustrations we are highlighting in this blog, demonstrating her keen interest in herpetology.

Coloured engraving of two bananas with two large blue butterflies and a small colourful lizard
Banana with teucer owl butterfly and rainbow whiptail lizard

All these illustrations are in our copy of Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam... par Marie Sibille Merian. La Haye : Cosse, 1726. Parallel texts Latin-French. French translation by Jean Rousset de Missy. Our copy of her magnificent book was published posthumously in 1726 and contains some additional illustrations when compared to the edition published in 1705.

Coloured engraving of a plant with white butterflies, caterpillars and a colourful small lizard
Cassava with white peacock butterfly and young golden tegu lizard

Maria Merian, at the age of 52 and accompanied by one of her daughters, Dorothea, sailed to Surinam in 1699.  In the introduction to the book Maria Merian outlines some of the difficulties she encountered including extreme heat, the humidity, the impenetrable rain forest, the attitudes of the other Europeans there who were only interested in sugar production, the lack of advice and access to information. For example, plants would grow in her garden but there was no-one to help with identification. She became ill and had to return to Amsterdam earlier than planned where she worked on preparing for publication. Her other daughter, Johanna had married Jacob Henrik Herolt in 1692, he became a merchant trading with Surinam, when they moved there, she sent specimens to her mother who could sell them on to collectors, helping to cover the costs of the expedition. The results of Maria Merian’s journey was her magnum opus Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam in which she depicted many species for the first time and frequently life size. Both her daughters assisted with the illustrations and the colouring of the prints (Heard, 2016).

Coloured engraving of roots and stem of a cassava plant with insects and a small snake which is swollen with recently swallowed food
Cassava root with garden tree boa, sphinx moth and treehopper

A flowering branch with a moth, chrystalis and caterpillar with a snake curled at the base of the branch
Spanish jasmine, ello sphinx moth and tree boa

As well as studying the metamorphosis of insects in Surinam, she studied the metamorphosis of amphibians. Her book includes an image and description of the unusual Surinam toad, Maria Merian was the first European to describe this species. The female toad carries the fertilised eggs under a layer of skin on her back, they develop into tadpoles then froglets on her back before breaking through their mother’s skin to swim away.

Coloured engraving of a Surinam toad with young on back
Surinam toad by Maria Merian in 'Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam…', 1726

Her book also includes additional images featuring amphibians.

Coloured engraving with a large purple flower, flying water bug and in water - frog with spawn, tadpoles and a water bug
Water hyacinth, marbled or veined tree frogs with tadpoles & frog spawn, giant water bugs

Two coloured prints depicting stages in frog metamorphosis - eggs to tadpoles to frog
Frog transformations (metamorphosis) Plate LXXI

Further reading:

One of our earlier blogs - The remarkable Marie Sibelle Merian

Etheridge, Kay with translations from German by Michael Ritterson (2021). Maria Sibylla Merian’s artistic entomology ArtHerStory Post/Blog

Heard, Kate (2016). Maria Merian’s butterflies. London : Royal Collection Trust.

Magee, Judith (2009). Art of nature : three centuries of natural history art from around the world. London : Natural History Museum.

Owens, Susan (2007). Maria Sibylla Merian : ‘Great diligence, grace and spirit’ In Amazing rare things : the art of natural history in the age of discovery, David Attenborough et al. London : Royal Collection Publications.

Steinkraus, Emma (2019).The protofeminist insects of Giovanna Garzoni and Maria Sibylla Merian  ArtHerStory Post/Blog

You may also be interested in these other ZSL Library & Archives blogs which feature Maria Merian - HERpers : Women and herpetology and Women, art and zoology: Celebrating International Women’s Day with female artists and illustrators

Colour engraving of frogs metamorphosis from eggs, tadpoles to frog with a palm tree, insects & other invertebrates
Frog transformations (metamorphosis) plate LXXII

Coloured engraving of a caiman with a red and black striped snake in its mouth
Common or spectacled caiman with South American false coral snake

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Information is vitally important in conservation.

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is currently open on Tuedays and Wednesdays by appointment only, please email in advance 

Please note we will be closed over the Christmas period. Our last day open is Wednesday 15 December 2021 and we hope to reopen on Tuesday 11 January 2022 to welcome back visitors. However our reopening date may change depending on government advice.

You can explore and discover our collections in a variety of ways –

Thanks to James Godwin for photographing the images from Merian's book.



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