Our Work

Our research in Zambia addresses the general theme of how interactions between species shape evolution and generate biological diversity. We are all passionate naturalists and our work is all inspired by natural history and field observations, and depends heavily on experiments in the field. With the help of interdisciplinary collaborations, we also integrate fieldwork with techniques drawn from other fields such as evolutionary genetics, sensory biology, physiology, and applied mathematics.

We primarily study brood-parasitic birds, which are a wonderful system for researching coevolution in the wild. This is because they are locked into coevolutionary interactions with their hosts, demanding continual adaptation and counter-adaptation in both parties. They are also very tractable to field experiments. Africa is an excellent place to study brood parasites as it contains the greatest diversity of brood parasites in the world. These interactions between tropical species are often oldest and therefore most revealing of general evolutionary processes.

Much of our research addresses two general themes:

Research - egg circle

1. How do signals of identity evolve?

We are interested in understanding how coevolution shapes sophisticated signals of identity. Our work has shown that parasitism by cuckoos and cuckoo finches has driven hosts to evolve visual ‘signatures’ of identity on their eggs, made up of different combinations of colours, spots and scribbles. The astonishing beauty and diversity of egg signatures is thus the outcome of a coevolutionary arms race between signatures and forgeries: hosts are driven to escape mimicry by evolving new egg types, but are constantly pursued by the parasite. A current research focus is to ask what are the design hallmarks (both phenotypic and genetic) of a perfect signature, and reciprocally, those of a perfect forgery.

Research - egg pairs

2. How is specialisation to different coevolutionary partners maintained?

Reciprocally, coevolution has shaped ancient genetic specialisation in parasites. Our work In collaboration with Prof Michael Sorenson at Boston University, has shown that ancient host-specific genetic lineages exist within certain parasitic species. These lineages have been shaped by coevolution with hosts and allow the integrity of intricate host-specific adaptations to be preserved. For example, in greater honeyguides, we have found that different strains of females within a single parasite species transmit the genes for egg mimicry from mother to daughter via the W chromosome (that in birds is carried only by females), and have thus remained perfectly faithful to different host species for several million years. Our research has also highlighted how phenotypically plastic processes such as imprinting can be associated with highly specialised chick mimicry in parasitic finches, by facilitating speciation.

More generally, we are intrigued by how the mechanistic basis of coevolutionary adaptations and counter-adaptations might shape the trajectory of evolutionary arms races. Together with our collaborators, we are currently further exploring how cognition, genetics, biophysics, biochemistry and physiology might promote or constrain coevolutionary diversification.

Zambia is a particularly wonderful place to address these questions in part because of its remarkable diversity of brood-parasitic birds: 31 species occur, representing four of the seven groups in which brood parasitism has independently evolved in birds. Our work focusses particularly on eight species from three of these independently evolved groups: four species of parasitic finch from the genera Anomalospiza and Vidua (Viduidae), two species of honeyguides (Indicatoridae), and two species of Cuculinae cuckoos.

The Study Systems pages on this website give an overview of the natural history of each of these bird families, and summarise some of our past findings.

On the Study Systems pages,  you will also find information on two other research topics we have investigated at our study site in Zambia, with links to the theme of species interactions: first, how does the winter ecology of migratory birds allow them to exploit a radically different biotic and abiotic environment on their African non-breeding grounds? Second, how does predator vision shape the evolution of nest camouflage in ground-nesting birds?

All these research themes also benefit from cooperation with other Zambian biologists, and we work closely with colleagues at Copperbelt University, the Livingstone Museum and (forthcoming in 2021) the Choma Museum on collaborative research, capacity-building, and public outreach.

Our work also depends crucially on the field skills and hospitality of the local community where we work, in the Choma District of southern Zambia (see The Team and Thanks).

Please also visit our sister research project in Mozambique, which seeks to understand the other side of the life of one of our brood-parasitic study species, the Greater Honeyguide, as a cooperative partner of our own species: www.africanhoneyguides.com.


Outreach for British Science Week at local Cambridgeshire school

During this year’s British Science Week, we’ve been engaging with local school children in Cambridgeshire. Mairenn Attwood led interactive talks at the Thomas Clarkson Academy in Wisbech,  a school partnered with ‘Teach First’ (a charity aimed at reducing educational inequality).

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New scientific paper on the “Limits to host colonization and speciation” published

Our paper “Limits to host colonization and speciation in a radiation of parasitic finches” has just been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology. In this study, led by Dr Gabriel Jamie, we explored the factors which limited the colonisation of new hosts by brood-parasitic Vidua finches. Speciation in these birds is closely connected with the colonisation of new hosts. Therefore, if we can understand what limits this process, we can understand what has limited the diversification of this radiation.

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Parasitic finches featured in new documentary “Attenborough’s Life in Colour” on BBC One

The amazing mimicry shown by nestling Pin-tailed Whydahs of their Common Waxbill hosts is showcased in David Attenborough’s Life in Colour the latest natural history documentary on BBC One. Filming of this sequence by Nick Green and Max Hug Williams of Humble Bee Films took place at our field site in Choma, Zambia, with Dr Gabriel Jamie acting as scientific consultant and contributing sound recordings.

You can watch the sequence in Episode 2: “Hiding in Colour” on BBC iPlayer.

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