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Abyssinian wolf (Canis simensis), from ‘Album of Abyssinian birds and mammals,’ illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (all images courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

In Latin American natural history, the achievements of outsiders often eclipse homegrown science and study. Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, with his late-18th to early-19th century South American expeditions, was followed by a string of expeditions from Europe and later the United States, but Latin American naturalists have had a major, if overlooked, impact on the understanding of biodiversity in their own countries. Latino Natural History, a digital exhibition launched this month, spotlights their contributions.

Duponchel’s Sphinx (Amphonyx duponchel) from ‘Centurie de lépidoptères de l’île de Cuba,’ written by Felipe Poey (click to view larger)

“There’s plenty of information on Latin American natural history, but a lot of the readily available accounts are from the point of view of outside explorers,” Adriana Marroquin, Biodiversity Heritage Library digital exhibits coordinator and creator of the exhibition, told Hyperallergic. “Along the same line, there are many Latino and Latina scientists who have contributed greatly to the study of natural history, but for a variety of reasons (political turmoil, lack of financial support, selective history, etc.) their work has been overshadowed by those outside point of views.”

The online resource was supported — along with an Early Women in Science exhibition — through a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee to the Smithsonian Libraries. Using the exhibition platform of the Biodiversity Library, which is a consortium of open access collections from natural history and botanical libraries, Latino Natural History is a compact portal into the work of naturalists both obscure and familiar. There are the celebrated bird paintings of Puerto Rican-American Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), as well as more recent work that’s still gaining attention, like that of the Argentinian agrostologist Cleofe Calderon, who passed away in 2007 and whose studies of bamboo had a major impact on the understanding of the evolution of grass. Each person gets a page in the exhibition, from Carlos de la Torre y Huerta of Cuba, with his early-20th century mollusk studies, to Eduardo Caballero y Caballero of Mexico, a leader in mid-20th century helminthology, the study of parasitic worms. Images on their respective pages lead to archives of their digitized, high-resolution works.

“It’s easy to leave out this part of the story, and it really shouldn’t be, especially since all the naturalists featured in the exhibition were part of the larger scientific communities of Latin America, Europe, and the United States,” Marroquin added. “This exhibit is by no means comprehensive, but we hope to bring to light the important contributions of Latinos and Latinas to the study of the natural sciences.”

Plate 23 from ‘The cyclophorid operculate land mollusks of America,’ co-authored by Carlos de la Torre y Huerta

Hutia Carabali (Capromys) from ‘Memorias sobre la historia natural de la isla de Cuba, acompañadas de sumarios latinos y extractos en frances,’ written by Felipe Poey

h/t Slate Vault

The exhibition Latino Natural History is accessible online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...