Science

This New Butterfly Species Is Named For Adventurous 17th Century Naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian – Forbes

This New Butterfly Species Is Named For Adventurous 17th Century Naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian – Forbes

Only two specimens of C. sibyllae have ever been recorded.Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

A rare butterfly species now bears the name of the 17th century woman who first described the process of metamorphosis. Scientists have only ever seen two Catasticta sibyllae, but DNA sequencing confirms that the butterfly is a new species. And now it’s named for naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 17th century Europe, butterfly collecting was a fairly typical hobby for women affluent enough to have the time, but they properly confined themselves to collecting and displaying pretty specimens. Scientific observation was considered a male pursuit — but Merian did it anyway, making detailed notes on the behavior and life cycle of the species she collected and illustrated. In 1679 and 1683, she published those detailed illustrations and observations in two volumes entitled simply Caterpillars. Each of its 186 entries described the species’ host plants, behavior, and entire life cycle from egg to caterpillar through metamorphosis into a butterfly or moth. With those detailed observations, Merian became the first to explain where insects actually came from — which was groundbreaking in an era when many naturalist still believed that, under the right conditions, insects simply appeared out of nowhere, in a process called spontaneous generation. Decades later, Carl Linnaeus — the naturalist who developed the modern classification system for all living things — turned to Merian’s illustrations and descriptions to name about a hundred species.

A couple of years later, she left her husband and moved with her mother and daughters to live with a Protestant religious sect called the Labadists, where she continued both her painting and her study of the natural world. There’s no record of what the sect’s leaders thought of her habits, which included dissecting frogs, but she stayed until 1692. That year, newly divorced after years of separation, she set up her own household in Amsterdam and made a living selling her paintings.

And evidently she made a good one, since in 1699 she was able to finance a five-year expedition to Suriname, then a Dutch colony, by selling 255 of her paintings (some funding also came from the Dutch West India Company, but Merian covered the bulk of the expedition’s expenses herself). The trip produced another book, with detailed illustrations and descriptions of 60 plant species and 90 animal species, including meticulous depictions of leafcutter ants at work and a tarantula eating an unfortunate hummingbird. Her drawings were so accurate and so detailed that modern entomologists could identify the genus of 73% of the butterflies and moths depicted in the book, and the exact species of 56%.

C. sybillae is one of several species named for Merian, including a sphinx moth, a cane toad, a snail, a lizard, a spider, and a bugle lily.Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

The striking black butterfly species that now bears her name, however, is not among them. The first known specimen of C. sibyllae wasn’t collected until the 1980s. Earlier this year, entomologist Pablo Sebastián Padrón ran across that specimen in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of butterflies from the family Peridae, and it immediately stood out as unusual. Most species of Peridae have colorfully patterned wings, so C. sibyllae’s sedate rows of white dots on black, with delicate flares of red where the wings join the body, stood out in sharp contrast to its flashier, more colorful cousins. Padrón sent a picture of the specimen to his colleague Shinichi Nakahara at the University of Florida.

“I didn’t know what it was. I told him it could be a new species, but it looked so bizarre,” Nakahara said in a statement. “It could have been an aberration. We just wanted to wait for an additional specimen.”

A couple of months later, in May 2018, Mississippi State University entomologist John MacDonald contacted Nakahara from a collecting trip in Panama. He had collected an unusual black butterfly with white dots on its wings and tiny red flares where the wings joined the body; it looked and behaved like a species of Peridae, but not one MacDonald had seen before. He sent Nakahara a picture and asked for his help in identifying the butterfly. Nakahara recognized it immediately. “The first thought that came to mind was that we could sequence its DNA,” he said. “I immediately wrote back and was like, ‘Hey, can you send me a leg?'” As one does. The DNA sequencing confirmed that the enigmatic butterfly was, in fact, a member of the family Peridae — and a new species. Nakahara and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Zootaxa.

Evidently, it’s also a very rare species. MacDonald’s field specimen and Padrón’s Smithsonian find are the only two C. sibyllae ever recorded, although Nakahara and his colleagues combed through 14 museum collections and MacDonald kept an eye out on a 29-month survey in Panama for more.

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Only two specimens of C. sibyllae have ever been recorded.Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

A rare butterfly species now bears the name of the 17th century woman who first described the process of metamorphosis. Scientists have only ever seen two Catasticta sibyllae, but DNA sequencing confirms that the butterfly is a new species. And now it’s named for naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 17th century Europe, butterfly collecting was a fairly typical hobby for women affluent enough to have the time, but they properly confined themselves to collecting and displaying pretty specimens. Scientific observation was considered a male pursuit — but Merian did it anyway, making detailed notes on the behavior and life cycle of the species she collected and illustrated. In 1679 and 1683, she published those detailed illustrations and observations in two volumes entitled simply Caterpillars. Each of its 186 entries described the species’ host plants, behavior, and entire life cycle from egg to caterpillar through metamorphosis into a butterfly or moth. With those detailed observations, Merian became the first to explain where insects actually came from — which was groundbreaking in an era when many naturalist still believed that, under the right conditions, insects simply appeared out of nowhere, in a process called spontaneous generation. Decades later, Carl Linnaeus — the naturalist who developed the modern classification system for all living things — turned to Merian’s illustrations and descriptions to name about a hundred species.

A couple of years later, she left her husband and moved with her mother and daughters to live with a Protestant religious sect called the Labadists, where she continued both her painting and her study of the natural world. There’s no record of what the sect’s leaders thought of her habits, which included dissecting frogs, but she stayed until 1692. That year, newly divorced after years of separation, she set up her own household in Amsterdam and made a living selling her paintings.

And evidently she made a good one, since in 1699 she was able to finance a five-year expedition to Suriname, then a Dutch colony, by selling 255 of her paintings (some funding also came from the Dutch West India Company, but Merian covered the bulk of the expedition’s expenses herself). The trip produced another book, with detailed illustrations and descriptions of 60 plant species and 90 animal species, including meticulous depictions of leafcutter ants at work and a tarantula eating an unfortunate hummingbird. Her drawings were so accurate and so detailed that modern entomologists could identify the genus of 73% of the butterflies and moths depicted in the book, and the exact species of 56%.

C. sybillae is one of several species named for Merian, including a sphinx moth, a cane toad, a snail, a lizard, a spider, and a bugle lily.Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

The striking black butterfly species that now bears her name, however, is not among them. The first known specimen of C. sibyllae wasn’t collected until the 1980s. Earlier this year, entomologist Pablo Sebastián Padrón ran across that specimen in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of butterflies from the family Peridae, and it immediately stood out as unusual. Most species of Peridae have colorfully patterned wings, so C. sibyllae’s sedate rows of white dots on black, with delicate flares of red where the wings join the body, stood out in sharp contrast to its flashier, more colorful cousins. Padrón sent a picture of the specimen to his colleague Shinichi Nakahara at the University of Florida.

“I didn’t know what it was. I told him it could be a new species, but it looked so bizarre,” Nakahara said in a statement. “It could have been an aberration. We just wanted to wait for an additional specimen.”

A couple of months later, in May 2018, Mississippi State University entomologist John MacDonald contacted Nakahara from a collecting trip in Panama. He had collected an unusual black butterfly with white dots on its wings and tiny red flares where the wings joined the body; it looked and behaved like a species of Peridae, but not one MacDonald had seen before. He sent Nakahara a picture and asked for his help in identifying the butterfly. Nakahara recognized it immediately. “The first thought that came to mind was that we could sequence its DNA,” he said. “I immediately wrote back and was like, ‘Hey, can you send me a leg?'” As one does. The DNA sequencing confirmed that the enigmatic butterfly was, in fact, a member of the family Peridae — and a new species. Nakahara and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Zootaxa.

Evidently, it’s also a very rare species. MacDonald’s field specimen and Padrón’s Smithsonian find are the only two C. sibyllae ever recorded, although Nakahara and his colleagues combed through 14 museum collections and MacDonald kept an eye out on a 29-month survey in Panama for more.

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