CURIOSITY DRIVEN "Neal was a first-class naturalist, willing to share his profound knowledge of tropical organisms from worms to birds with investigators beginning their research in the tropics," said Ira Rubinoff, STRI's Director Emeritus. Born in Brooklyn on April 3, 1937, Neal Smith, ornithologist and tropical biologist, received his B.A. from St. John's University in 1958, his M.A. in 1961 and his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1963, when he came to Panama as the second resident staff scientist at STRI.
SUPER EYE RINGS
As a boy, Neal rode his bike to New York garbage dumps to watch gulls.
Eugene Eisenmann, a Panamanian lawyer and ornithologist, put him to work in the gull collection at the American Museum of Natural History and invited him to lectures by evolutionary biologists Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky and George Gaylord Simpson.
Later, for his Ph.D., at Cornell, Neal set off to the Arctic to discover what keeps gull species in a rassenkreis around 'a group of closely related subspecies', from interbreeding. He painted 'super eye rings' on some birds to see if mated pairs would break up. His curiosity and controversial results impressed Martin Moynihan, who hired him to work at STRI.
RIVERS OF HAWKS More than a million Swainson's Hawks, Broad-Winged Hawks and Black Vultures travel from the prairies and mountains of North America to the South American pampas and back every year. Neal Smith and colleagues explained how migrants make the 5,000-9,000 kilometer journey without eating along the way. By riding warm air 'thermals' up into the clouds and gliding back down in long streams that Neal called 'rivers of hawks,' they use solar energy to supplement fat supplies for the 30-65 day trip.
SERENDIPITY A few days after arriving in Panama, Neal saw a spectacular migration of green-and-black moths. "What are they? Where are they coming from?" Neal asked. No one knew the answer. Neal then studied the moths and found that the plants they eat gradually become toxic, forcing the moths to migrate. The sugar-mimicking toxin not only disrupts predator digestion but may have a number of applications - as a diet aid, treatment for diabetes or AIDS, or as a pesticide to control locusts.
THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING PARASITIZED Chestnut-headed Oropendolas live in big colonies of tear-shaped basket nests. Neal used a cherry-picker truck on loan from the U.S. Air Force to observe hundreds of nests without disturbing the occupants. In a paper in the journal Nature, Neal described his observation that the chicks of giant cowbirds, nest parasites that lay their eggs in Oropendola nests, remove botfly larvae that could kill the chicks of the oropendolas.
DARWIN'S "BEAUTIFUL CONTRIVANCES" Neal could often be found in a screen house next to the Ancon building at STRI. Amid myriad baskets hung in gentle mist sprays, Neal created new varieties of orchids, often of ineffable beauty. At the entrance to the nearby Tupper Center, Neal treated the STRI community to a dazzling display of the pick of the crop, sparking conversations about pollination and co-evolution among students and visitors.
Science Sendings By the 1990's thousands of specialized journals, many online, made it challenging to keep up with the scientific literature. Appalled that people didn't read widely and that they even repeated previous work, Neal started Science Sendings, combing through Current Contents and e-mailing articles and book reviews that he considered to be breakthroughs, controversial, hidden in obscure journals, or just plain wrong to a list of appreciative colleagues, journalists and students around the world. When Neal died on Sept. 28, 2012, 7,000 people were receiving his Science Sendings.