New ‘Rare’ Butterfly Species Named After Pioneering Female Naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian

Jacobus HoubrakenWikimedia Commons/Cropped and Resized

Scientists have discovered a “rare and striking” butterfly species, which has been given a very special name.

Described in a study recently published in the journal Zootaxa, the newfound butterfly species is so rare that only two specimens have ever been sighted, reports Science Daily.

Found decades apart, the specimens have been identified as a previously unknown species of Central American butterfly belonging to the Peridae family. The newly discovered pierid is incredibly unique, having a very unusual coloring for a butterfly of its kind, notes Atlas Obscura.

Unlike most pierids — which are usually white, yellow, or orange in color and sport black spots — this butterfly has “dramatic black” wings, lined with two subtle rows of white dots, and tiny red flares going around the contour of its body. This makes it a literal “black sheep” among a flutter of colorful butterflies.

Dubbed Catasticta sibyllae, this exceptional butterfly now bears the name of an exceptional woman — the trailblazing female naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. While other animals, plants, and insects have been named after Merian in the past, including two subspecies of butterflies, Catasticta sibyllae is the first one to be named in her honor, explains the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Since this is such a distinctive butterfly, we wanted to name it after someone who would deserve it,” said study lead author Shinichi Nakahara, a lepidopterist at the Florida Museum.

The two butterfly specimens that led to the discovery of the new species were both found in Panama — only in different centuries. The first one has remained unidentified for the past 40 years and has been stored at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum since 1981. The second one was found this May by study co-author John MacDonald, an entomologist at Mississippi State University.

Serendipity inspired MacDonald to send a photo of the butterfly to Nakahara just a couple of months after the scientist had received a snapshot of the Smithsonian specimen — forwarded for identification by study co-author Pablo Sebastian Padron. The team conducted a DNA analysis of the specimens and established that they belonged to a completely new pierid species, which they decided to name in honor of Merian.

“Merian was centuries ahead of her time, and her discoveries changed the course of entomology,” Nakahara said in a statement.

“The fact that she accomplished so much against all odds — as a divorced woman in the 17th century who taught herself natural history — is remarkable. And she did it so beautifully.”

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian.
Portrait of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Germany in 1647, Merian was a self-taught naturalist who produced exquisite illustrations of insects and plants, leaving behind an artful collection of drawings that revealed the insects’ life cycle and their intimate relationships with their host plants.

“At a time when many naturalists believed insects were the products of spontaneous generation, Merian’s work was the first to show their complete life cycles, from eggs to adults,” state officials from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“She carefully recorded and depicted hundreds of species, several decades before Carl Linnaeus introduced the modern system of scientific classification. Linnaeus and other scientists would later use Merian’s descriptions to name and describe about 100 species.”

Her first book of illustrations came out when Merian was just 28-years-old. The naturalist followed up with two volumes on caterpillar metamorphosis, detailing the transformation of 186 species.

At the age of 52, she embarked on an adventurous journey to the then-Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, which she paid for by selling 225 of her own artworks. Her expedition yielded an extensive volume illustrating Suriname’s flora and fauna, in which Merian described 60 species of plants, including the pineapple, and more than 90 species of animals.