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 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 Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge and Research Associate at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town.

In Zambia, we work with colleagues at the Livingstone Museum, the Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences at Copperbelt University and 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

Evolutionary Biology Crash Course

Tanmay Dixit was a member of a team organising and lecturing in the inaugural Evolutionary Biology Crash Course. This course, aimed at undergraduate or early-postgraduate students, teaches evolutionary principles to students who have had limited opportunities to be exposed to evolutionary ideas. The course is funded by the Equal Opportunities Initiative Fund of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB). Tanmay presented lectures on behavioural ecology and evolution, focussing on kin selection, coevolution, and parasitism. Over 700 students, with the vast majority from the global South, attended the course, which was a resounding success!

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New paper on visual complexity & mimicry

Our paper “Visual complexity of egg patterns predicts egg rejection according to Weber’s Law” has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This research was led by Tanmay Dixit, and carried out together with Andrei Apostol, Kuan-Chi Chen, Tony Fulford, Chris Town and Claire Spottiswoode, in a collaboration between biologists and computer scientists. We used machine learning to compute a biologically-relevant measure of egg pattern complexity, and combined this with field experiments in Zambia to investigate how complexity evolves in an arms race between host egg signatures (by tawny-flanked prinias) and parasitic egg forgeries (by cuckoo finches).

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Fieldwork and teaching at APLORI, Nigeria

Dr Gabriel Jamie is continuing his fieldwork on the evolution of polymorphisms in cisticolas and prinias in Nigeria, where he is also a teaching fellow at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI). The image shows the 2022 APLORI MSc class during the Global Birding Big Day on 14 May. The team recorded 135 species while walking around the nature reserve surrounding the institute.

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New paper on the genetics of cuckoo finch egg mimicry

Our paper “Genetic architecture facilitates then constrains adaptation in a host-parasite coevolutionary arms race” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In it, we address the long-standing puzzle of how exquisite mimicry of the eggs of several different host species can evolve within a single species of brood-parasitic bird. We show that in cuckoo finches in Zambia, egg mimicry of different host egg phenotypes is maternally inherited, which allows mothers to transmit host-specific adaptations to their daughters irrespective of which host species the father was raised by. This study was a team effort from colleagues at the University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town (Claire Spottiswoode, Wenfei Tong, Gabriel Jamie), at Boston University (Katherine Stryjewski, Jeff DaCosta, Evan Kuras and Michael Sorenson) and in the Choma community in Zambia (Ailsa Green, Silky Hamama, Ian Taylor and Collins Moya).

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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