The first female entomologist: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

I recently visited Amsterdam, where I came across the work of a German naturalist of whom I had not previously been aware.  The Rijksmuseum contains a book that dates back to 1730 and was written by (according to the museum plaque) the “first female entomologist”, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). The book, entitled De Europische Insecten (available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library) contains hundreds of illustrations of species made by the author (who also happened to be an extremely talented artist).  You can see some of the detailed illustrations from the book at the Sotheby’s auction page for a copy that is for sale (at £25,000-30,000 it’s a bit out of my price range…) and an example of a page below.

A plate from De Europische Insecten

Merian’s story is an interesting one.  Born into a famous publishing family, her father passed away when she was three years old.  Her mother later married an artist, thus combining the literary and artistic aspects of Merian’s upbringing that would determine her career.  She began at the age of 13 by drawing and painting the silk worms that she caught around her home in Frankfurt.  As a young female artist, she was a popular tutor for the daughters of local wealthy families and this allowed her to both earn a good living and gain access to influential people (and their extensive gardens with all those wonderful insects!).  It was as a result of watching the development of caterpillars into butterflies that she became interested in metamorphosis, and this eventually led to her publication of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (also available online in its entirety).  This volume, drafted by Merian after a two year visit to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America (which was cut short after she caught malaria), provided European scientists with some of the first full-colour images of the South American flora and fauna.  Merian undertook that trip at the age of 52 with her daughter, Dorothea Maria, and documented many new species of Lepidoptera, including all stages of the life cycle and the host plant on which the caterpillar lives – a wonderful resource for naturalists back home.  During her visit to Surinam, Merian spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves by Dutch plantation owners and took note of the names that indigenous peoples gave to the species she encountered.

Merian’s work was extremely valuable to Carl Linnaeus, who published in 1735 his Systema Naturae (also available online, but nowhere near as aesthetically appealing at Merian’s work) which laid-out the biological nomenclature that we use today.  In particular, the focus on metamorphosis has led to her being listed among the most influential entomologists of all time.  Merian was honoured with a Google Doodle to commemorate what would have been her 366th birthday on 3rd April 2013.  However, despite all this there is a pretty good chance that Merian died penniless in 1717 a few years after suffering a stroke.  But that is all the more reason to appreciate her work today, which is still among some of the most-highly valued and collectable natural history artwork in the world.

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The copy of De Europische Insecten in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Species with a chemical defence (but not a chemical offence) live longer

Dendrobatid frogs are the classic “aposematic” species: they advertise their toxins with bright colours

I wanted to spend a post talking about a new paper that was published recently (3 May 2013) with some colleagues from Carleton University.  It is easy to see the value of tasting bad: predators try to eat you, feel sick, then leave you alone.  Even better if you have bright colours or a strong smell (called “aposematic signals”) to go along with it – that way predators can learn to avoid your colours without having to taste you a second time.  In fact, they don’t have to taste you at all if other animals of your species also have the bad taste and the bright colours.  In theory, this chemical defence should reduce deaths due to predation which means that the prey live longer.Read More »

Green space is good for your health (also, Pope is Catholic)

This may not come as a surprise to many, but living in an urban environment may not be great for your mental health…  Being constantly surrounded by hustle and bustle, and constantly plugged in to technologies that keep you connected to work and current events, can be a drain. Now a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science in April 2013 (although I can’t find the actual paper online, yet), has provided yet more evidence for an important role of green space in urban areas for the purposes of enhancing “life satisfaction” and general health.  The study used over 10,000 participants, with data recorded over an 18 year period.

It’s worth noting the limitations of this study – it was epidemiological, which means that a lot of variables were recorded and the authors attempted to tease apart correlations between those variables.  The result is that we cannot infer causation.  For example, a clearer result would have been generated by an empirical approach involving a trial with randomly selected people being placed in either high green space or low green space areas, with their mental health measured before and after.  However, it is worth noting that the authors took huge numbers of variables into account when analysing these data, and the datasets are very large.  All of this suggests that the results are reliable.  They also produced a nice, simple video to explain the results in more detail (a great example of outreach by the researchers involved!):

Photo of Roundhay Park, Leeds, by Green Lane (via Wikimedia Commons)

Leeds Big Data Week (big data for conservation biology)

I’m excited to be a part of Big Data Week this year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon of big data, IBM has a pretty good definition.  In essence, we are collecting huge amounts of data by virtue of living in a technologically advanced world, and those data are collected rapidly in a diverse range of formats. The challenge now is what to do with all of it! Big Data Week, which is running from 22-28 April 2013, is an international movement that was established in 2011 to connect businesses, data scientists, and technology groups to explore novel social, political, technological and commercial applications of big data.  Leeds Data Thing is my local big data group, formed in 2013 to provide a venue for the discussion of local big data applications.  They are putting on a range of events for BDW 2013, and I have volunteered to give a short presentation at one of those events.

Read More »

Beetles on flowers


I took this photo while I was teaching on a field course in Spain earlier this month (harder work than it sounds).  It was a nice opportunity to try out my camera (which I have been trying and failing to do on this blog) as spring is in full swing over there.  I was amazed by the diversity of animals that I only found on flowers (although part of that might have been that the flower-dwellers were more noticeable…), but I was surprised to see what look like two different life history stages of potentially the same species on a single flower.  Does anybody know what this beetle is…?

UPDATE 21/7/13: My friend Patrick suggests that it could be Cryptocephalus rugicollis.  Looks like a good call to me!

Launch of a new project: the West Yorkshire Ponds Project (WYPP)

I feel that I should demote myself from “blogger” to “occasional blogger”…  But I have an excuse!  Exciting things are happening, and I have been involved in some new projects which have taken up a considerable amount of time.  Aside from a massive EU grant application (which has taken an inordinate amount of time to produce 25,000 words), I have also been finalising the launch of the West Yorkshire Ponds Project (WYPP, click the image to go to the page):

WYPP is the beginning of a new research project that I have had in the pipeline for some time.  The aim is to spread knowledge about the value of urban wetlands (focusing on the West Yorkshire region for now) while seeking collaborations with which to advance that knowledge.  Feel free to browse around the site to find out more about the value of ponds (flood prevention, pollution reduction, biodiversity enhancement), and how school ponds can bring nature within reach of the most inner-city of schools.

I’d appreciate feedback or comments on the site, and I’d love to hear from anyone in the West Yorkshire area who might be interested in working with me on this project.  It is going to be very community-oriented so the more the merrier!

My PhD thesis in the ten hundred most used words

Calopteryx splendens femaleInspired by this xkcd comic, and facilitated by this online tool, people have been summarising all kinds of ideas using the 1,000 most common words.  Naturally PhD students have latched onto this as a source of procrastination and, in a show of solidarity, I decided to join them (this was during my lunch break – honest!).  Here’s my PhD thesis:

My work looks at how animals change as the world gets warmer.  My animal is like a fly but it has four flying bits, eats other animals, and has big eyes.  By looking at where people saw these animals in the past, I figured out how the place and time at which they appear changes with how hot it is.   I found that they appear earlier when it is hot, which is interesting because these animals spend most of their lives in water.  Animals in water had not been shown to change when they appear in this way before.   I also looked at the ways in which we look at changes in where animals appear and showed the best way to look at this problem.  Last, I looked at how the form of these animals changes as they move when it gets hotter.  I found that the animals that had moved a long way had a form that made it easy for them to move (like big flying bits).  In short, the changes shown by the animals that I looked at can be used to build a case for a warming world.