Welcome to African Cuckoos

Adaptation, mimicry and co-evolution in Africa’s avian cheats: cuckoo finches, honeyguides, indigobirds & cuckoos.

Brood parasites are the cheats of the bird world. They exploit the parental care of other species (their hosts) to raise their young. Hosts suffer if they are successfully tricked by a brood parasite, because brood-parasitic chicks monopolise access to food provided by host parents, and some species actively kill the host’s eggs and chicks.

This conflict between brood parasites and their hosts has led to some of the most beautiful examples of adaptation seen in nature. They also provide ideal study systems for field research on coevolution – the process by which two or more species affect each other’s evolution. As the brood parasite adapts to better exploit the host, the host often evolves counter-adaptations to better defend itself against the parasite.

We are a group of evolutionary biologists studying brood parasites (and other interesting birds) in the field in Choma, Zambia, since 2006, based jointly in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

The project is led by Prof. Claire Spottiswoode, Principal Research Associate and Hans Gadow Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, and is co-led by Dr Gabriel Jamie, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and a research associate at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town.

In Zambia, we also work with colleagues at the Livingstone Museum, the Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences at Copperbelt University, and (forthcoming in 2021) Choma Museum, in collaborative research, public outreach, and capacity-building.

On this website you can find out more about our work, the brood parasites and other interesting birds we study, see photos of our fieldwork, and read a bit about who we are, what we’ve written, and who supports our work.

home page cuckoo mosaic

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News

New paper published on Weber’s Law and mimicry

Our paper ‘Why and how to apply Weber’s Law to coevolution and mimicry’ has been published in the journal Evolution. This perspectives paper, written by Tanmay Dixit, Eleanor Caves, Claire Spottiswoode, and Nicholas Horrocks, argues that Weber’s Law of proportional processing can lead to otherwise counterintuitive predictions about the evolutionary trajectories of mimicry systems.  Weber’s Law states that when the magnitude of a stimulus is large, it is more difficult to discriminate a change or difference from that stimulus. In other words, relative differences are more salient than absolute differences. We show that Weber’s Law could have implications for mimicry: when stimulus magnitudes are high, it should be more difficult to discriminate a model from a mimic. This leads to testable predictions about evolutionary trajectories of models and mimics. We also present a framework for testing Weber’s Law and its implications for coevolution. 

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New paper on evolution of egg signatures

Our paper “Hosts elevate either within-clutch consistency or between-clutch distinctiveness of egg phenotypes in defence against brood parasites” has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. In this study, led by Eleanor Caves, we asked how host eggs evolve adaptations that allow them better to discriminate their own eggs from parasitic eggs. Theoretically, hosts can generate their own individually-distinctive egg ‘signatures’ by laying eggs that appear similar to one another (consistency) but look very different from other individuals’ eggs (distinctiveness). In this new study, we show that host species of two African brood parasites deploy either consistency or distinctiveness, but not both, as defences, and achieve distinctiveness by combining egg colours and patterns in unpredictable combinations.

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Mairenn Attwood awarded Cambridge teaching prize

Congratulations to Mairenn Attwood for being awarded the Janet Moore Prize for teaching in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, for her outstanding tutorial supervision of final-year undergraduate students, who praised her breadth and depth of knowledge, enthusiasm, and friendliness.  Mairenn follows in the footsteps of Tanmay Dixit who was awarded the Janet Moore Prize in 2020. Well done both for inspiring the next generation of behavioural ecologists!

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Supported By:

The-Leverhulme-Trust
BBSRC
LOreal-UNESCO-For-Women-in-Science
Percy-FitzPatrick-Institute
The-Royal-Society
Marie-Curie-Actions
BBSRC
The-Leverhulme-Trust
The-Royal-Society
Percy-FitzPatrick-Institute
LOreal-UNESCO-For-Women-in-Science
Marie-Curie-Actions