Record Unit 9584, Smith, Neal Griffith, 1937- interviewee, Neal Griffith Smith Interview, 1990
Neal G. Smith (1937- ), an evolutionary biologist, joined the staff of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in 1963. He was born on April 3, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York. He received his B.A. from St. John's University in 1958 while volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). He completed his graduate work in zoology at Cornell, where he received the M.A. in 1961 and the Ph.D. in 1963.
Smith's interest in zoology began early, when as a youth in Brooklyn he watched gulls at the New York City garbage dumps and joined local bird watching societies. He was first introduced to the ornithology profession when Eugene Eisenmann, whom he met on a birding trip, invited him to study gulls and volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History. His graduate research at Cornell led him to the Arctic for studies of the systematics of Arctic gulls (Larus). At the 1963 Ornithological Congress in Ithaca, New York, Smith met Martin H. Moynihan of the Smithsonian's Canal Zone Biological Area (CZBA), later to be renamed STRI. Moynihan invited Smith to work at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), the CZBA site in Panama for a six month appointment after he completed his dissertation in 1963, and Smith continued research at STRI for the remainder of his career, taking on administrative responsibilities as well. He became Assistant Director of Academic Planning in 1974, but spent most of his time following his research interests. Smith was a member of various scientific societies, including the American Ornithologists' Union, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Almost all of Smith's research was in the Neotropics, studying the evolutionary biology of birds and insects, especially adaptations of behavioral, morphological, and physical features involved in species recognition, competition, and parasitism. His first major research interest at STRI, which continues to this day, involves the interaction of Urania fulgens, a moth, and Omphalea, a liana. He soon became interested in the nesting behavior of colonial birds and their responses to parasites, focusing on BCI's abundant oropendolas, and their interaction with cowbirds, botflies, and wasps, and developed creative mechanisms for his actual examination of nests. He has also studied the great migrations of the Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni), broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus), and turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), especially their apparent fasting and subsequent usage of stored fat for extensive migrations.