The Curation Team for the Duke Research Data Repository is happy to present an interview with Dr. Thomas Struhsaker, Retired Adjunct Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology.
Dr. Struhsaker’s dataset, Digitized tape recordings of Red colobus and other African forest monkey species vocalizations, was the 200th dataset to be added to the Duke Research Data Repository. I worked closely with Tom to arrange and describe this collection. He hopes to be adding even more in the near future as he winds down his career. Tom might not know this, but his dataset has been tweeted about 36 times at this point and has been viewed 336 times since August. Ever the humble scientist, I did not know until I saw the tweets that Tom was the winner of the 2022 President’s Award from the American Society of Primatologists (congratulations Tom!).
I started my interview with Dr. Struhsaker as one typically would – by asking him to tell me about himself and his field of research. He laughs and says “Oh boy, where to begin? You’re talking half a century here.” I could listen to Tom talk for hours about his experiences as a young field biologist at a time when primatology was just figuring itself out. Tom went about his work as a naturalist – do not interfere, observe and learn. He spent 25 years in Africa (spanning 56 years from 1962-2018), observing many different species of animals, not just primates. For 18 of these 25 years Tom lived in Uganda as a full-time resident, including during the reign of Idi Amin, one of the most brutal rulers in modern history. Idi Amin aside, Tom thought that the Ugandans were some of the best folks to work with regarding conservation in Africa due to their dedication to higher education (Makerere University) with growing generations of students and the establishment of Kibale National Park. I cannot do Tom’s fascinating life justice in just this short blog post, so I encourage you to read Tom’s 2022 article, The life of a naturalist (full text access available through NetID login) and his memoir, I remember Africa: A field biologist’s half-century perspective (Perkins & Bostock Library – Duke Authors Display – QH31.S79 A3 2021). What I can tell you, at least from my perspective, is that Tom has led a life passionate about nature, wanting to know everything he could from our cohabiters on this planet and how we can best live together. If you would like your own copy it can be purchased here.
Tom recorded these vocalizations between 1969-1992. He thought it was really important to do so because they are key to understanding communication and the social life of primates. Analysis of these recordings led Tom to conclude that among African monkeys vocalizations are relatively stable characters from an evolutionary perspective and, therefore, important in understanding phylogenetic relationships. As for archiving and sharing the recordings of these vocalizations, Tom didn’t initially have that in mind. He instead followed the more traditional academic route of publishing articles including spectrograms, and his conclusions about the meaning of the vocalizations. Over the last two years as Tom began thinking about the legacy of his materials, he realized that while the visual representations are useful to share for analysis, it is just not the same as listening to the sounds themselves. Why not archive them to make it possible for others to hear them?
“He realized that while the visual representations are useful to share for analysis, it is just not the same as listening to the sounds themselves. Why not archive them to make it possible for others to hear them?”
With increasing human populations, deforestation, climate changes, etc., some of these animals (like the Red Colobus) have become critically endangered, and these recordings might be the only way future generations will ever be able to hear these animals. Tom’s recordings were made using reel to reel tapes on very large and heavy tape recorders with 12 D-Cell batteries. Crawling through the forest with these machines in addition to a large boom microphone was no easy feat. With the help of the Macaulay Library (Mr. Matthew Medler in particular), several of the original tapes were digitized to the high-quality WAV files we have in the collection. Tom has also augmented the collection with his own MP3 recordings. He hopes to have more WAV format from Macaulay Library in the future.
Tom did not initially know where to archive these vocalizations as they weren’t in scope for MorphoSource (another Duke-based repository for 3D imaging) where Tom will soon have a collection of red colobus monkey images available. Thanks to a suggestion from his neighbor Ben Donnelly, he reached out to the Duke Research Data Repository Curation Team (thanks for being a great colleague Ben!). This is where I (Jen Darragh), the author, come in.
Tom and I worked together over the course of a couple months to build his data deposit. Perhaps somewhat self-servingly, I asked him how he found the process. He stoked my ego with both a “fantastic, and easy peasy.” He said he would recommend us to anyone as we do our best to make the process as clear and pain-free as possible. Aw shucks Tom. You are one of my favorite depositors to work with, too.
I asked Tom what would he advise for early career researchers and those just getting started in the field when it comes to data sharing and archiving. He said that he is seeing increasing requirements as part of publishing (he’s right) and he’s in favor, as long as the person who collected the data is credited (cite properly!) and consulted when possible (collaboration is good). It’s important to advance the sciences. Repositories help to encourage good citation practices in addition to the preservation of important data for the long-term.
Tom also mentioned some longitudinal data he had collaborative built over the years with colleagues and that continues to be built upon. His experience of archiving his vocalization recordings with us (and his images with MorphoSource) got him thinking that repositories are a wonderful option to ensure that these important materials continue to persist and be used. He has thought of at least three important datasets and plans to reach out to his collaborators about archiving these data either with us in the Duke RDR, or in another formal repository of their choosing.
Tom recently shared with me a collection of photographs that he has taken in the same spot in Kibale from 1976-2018 that shows how the area went from bare grassland to a low stature forest (pre-conservation to post-conservation efforts). He has shared these with his colleagues directly to show the fascinating change over time. He now hopes to share them more broadly through the Duke RDR (forthcoming, we have some processing to do). Perhaps someone will be inspired to animate the images and then share back with us.
To close the interview, I asked Tom what his favorite animal was. I think it’s no surprise that he likes them all; there are so many he likes for different reasons, some subtle, some not (“some insects are damn weird”) and some just do incredibly interesting things. The diversity is what he loves.
Struhsaker, T. T. (2022). Digitized tape recordings of Red colobus and other African forest monkey species vocalizations. Duke Research Data Repository. https://doi.org/10.7924/r4pv6nm9f