How the birdeater got its name

Most certainly, ornithologists do not like bird-eating spiders (‚Vogelspinnen‘ in German). That is because the name suggests that these spiders like their objects of study for lunch. However, it had long been doubted that spiders are able to capture birds. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the founder of zoological and botanical nomenclature, apparently believed that. Aranea avicularia, a spider from tropical South America, was named by him. Linnaeus actually had been inspired by the depiction of a bird-attacking spider by Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717).

Maria Sibylla Merian – pioneer naturalist

Maria Sibylla Merian, born in Frankfurt/Main (Germany) was one of the first naturalists as well as a gifted artist who captured her observations in engravings and watercolors. Beside that, she was an entrepreneur and globetrotter. At Merian’s times, the study of the natural world was in its infancy: it was ruled by medieval notions that took up ancient traditions. Aristotle (384-322. Chr.), for example, was convinced that insects and other animals would arise from putrid mud in a kind of spontaneous generation. Sibylla Merian’s first major work was the three-part „New Flower book“ (1675-1680). Butterflies and other insects were hardly represented yet. Later, Merian laid the foundation for her life’s work on the metamorphosis of insects and other animals: „The caterpillars wonderful transformation and strange flower food“ in two parts (1679 and 1683). During her stay in Western Friesland (1686-1691), Merian worked on a personal album of watercolors which later became known as the „Sketchbook“.

In 1691,  Maria Sibylla Merian moved to Amsterdam. There she got acquainted with business people who returned from the former Dutch colony of Surinam (northern South America). Inspired by the exotic animals and plants that were brought from the tropics, she travelled to Surinam for herself in 1699 onboard a merchant ship. In poor health, Merian returned to Europe in 1701. In Amsterdam, she finally released her most important work: the „Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium“ (1705), the results of her travel to tropical South America. Famed, but impoverished, Maria Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717.

„Tarantula sheet“, colored copper engraving from: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705). © Dr. Katharina Schmidt-Loske

Dr. Katharina Schmidt-Loske, head of the Biohistoricum at Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn and co-founder of the recently launched Merian Society, studied the zoological aspects of Merian’s work for her doctoral thesis. She describes Merian as a sovereign and independent woman who, nevertheless, behaved modestly in the scientific environment of her time. But Merian was an astute observer who carefully documented biological phenomena and strongly influenced academics of her time as well as of later generations. Errors and paradoxes in Merian’s work can be explained both by the lack of reliable information at her time as well as by artistic or „commercial“ necessity.

‚Tarantula with Hummingbird‘

Maria Sibylla Merian’s reproduction of a „Tarantula with Hummingbird“ (in an edition of the Metamorphosis from 1705) was subject to debate. Merian’s contemporaries doubted the feeding and foraging behaviour of the spider sensu Merian, but Schmidt-Loske’s analysis of the engraving confirmed Merian’s distinct observation. Not only because Englishman Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) had observed these spiders bird-hunting more than a century later, thus confirming Merian’s representation. Even small details like the hummingbird’s plumage colour are mapped correctly. Nevertheless, discrepancies remain: Right next to the nest we see a male hummingbird, although, according to current knowledge, the male kolibri is not taking part in brood care. In addition, the two tarantulas are not correctly reproduced in all details. Schmidt-Loske did research on that and found that Merian made the present drawings based on specimens that had been preserved by applying the very creative and manipulative methods of preparation of that time.

Parts of this article have appeared earlier, in similar form and in Dutch language, in the newspaper Bionieuws (Netherlands).

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