The Team

There are several of us who do all our fieldwork in Zambia, and we also collaborate with people further afield. Everything we do in Zambia relies on the help of a brilliant team of field assistants, who make all our experiments possible for us.

Zambia team

Mairenn Collins Attwood

Mairenn Attwood

PhD student, University of Cambridge

Mairenn is researching how community ecology affects the co-evolution of African cuckoos and fork-tailed drongos. She is using model presentations in her fieldwork to quantify drongo mimicry and aggression, examining their roles both as exploiters and exploited. Read more here…

Tanmay Dixit

PhD student, University of Cambridge

Tanmay is working on the evolution of host egg signatures and their cuckoo finch forgeries, using a combination of field experiments and mathematical modelling. He is particularly interested in the optimality of signatures and forgeries, and whether birds behave as logically (or otherwise) as we humans would do in their place. Read more here…

Silky Hamama

Silky Hamama

Chief fieldworker, Choma team

Silky has been working with us since 2012. Silky hails from Sinazongwe close to Lake Kariba, and moved to Choma at a young age. He initially worked with us hand-rearing nestling Cuckoo Finches and looking after our aviaries and, since 2015, has also helped to manage the field team, check experiments, collect samples, catch birds in mistnets, and position nest cameras.

Lazaro Hamusikili

Lazaro Hamusikili

Chief fieldworker, Choma team

Lazaro is an ornithological legend. He has over thirty years experience of Zambian field ornithology, since he was Major John Colebrook-Robjent’s main ornithological assistant since the early 1980s. He has a prodigious knowledge of Zambian birds and their breeding ecology, and is an expert preparator of museum skins.

Nick Horrocks

Dr Nicholas Horrocks

Guest Researcher, Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease

Nick studies how the eggs of ground-nesting birds cope with the extreme temperatures experienced during the dry season, and previously worked on trade-offs between growth and immunity in greater and lesser honeyguides. Read more here…

Gabriel Jamie

Dr Gabriel Jamie

BBSRC-funded postdoc, University of Cambridge and Research Associate, University of Cape Town

Gabriel researches mimicry and speciation with a particular interest in brood-parasitic birds, and co-leads the project. For his PhD he studied the interactions between the parasitic indigobirds and whydahs of Africa and their hosts. He is currently studying the evolution and genetics of egg diversity in the hosts of avian brood parasites. Read more here…

Jess Lund cropped

Jess Lund

PhD student, University of Cambridge

Jess previously worked on the evolution of egg signatures in the African cuckoo and fork-tailed drongo, but she has now crossed over to the dark side and is focusing on honeyguides. For her PhD she is investigating the role of phenotypic plasticity in host-specific adaptations of greater and lesser honeyguides, particularly how the host rearing environment impacts on the future lives of these species. Read more here…

Collins Moya

Collins Moya

Chief fieldworker, Choma team

Collins has been our primary field assistant since 2007. He was born near Choma and attended Monze Secondary School. Collins helps to manage the field team, check experiments, collect samples, catch birds in mistnets, position nest cameras, and carry out outreach activities.

Sylvester Munkonko

Sylvester Munkoko

Chief fieldworker, Choma team

Sylvester has worked with us as a nest-finder since 2012, and in recent years has also helped extensively with conducting experiments and positioning nest cameras.

Dr Chima Nwaogu with a greater honeyguide

Dr Chima Nwaogu

Junior Research Fellow, University of Cape Town

Chima’s research focusses on life-history evolution in the tropics. During his Junior Research Fellowship, he is establishing a new programme of work investigating the timing of breeding in Afrotropical birds and how it may be affected by environmental change. Read more here…

Claire Spottiswoode

Professor Claire Spottiswoode

Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology, University of Cape Town and Principal Research Associate, University of Cambridge

Claire leads the project, which she started off in 2006 thanks to meeting Major John Colebrook-Robjent. She is fascinated by the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. Her research focusses mainly on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and their hosts (this website), and mutualism between honeyguides and the human honey-hunters with whom they cooperate to gain access to bees’ nests (see AfricanHoneyguides.com). Read more here…

Nest-finding assistants

Everything we do in Zambia depends on a brilliant team of fieldworkers on Musumanene, Semhawa and Muckleneuk Farms who, in their spare time from farm work, find all the nests we study. Here are some among them:

Collaborators

Professor Tim Birkhead

University of Sheffield, UK

Tim has visited Choma several times and collaborated with Claire on work on internal incubation by cuckoos and honeyguides, on honeyguide brains, and on early developmental adaptations in parasitic chicks. Visit Tim’s webpage.

Dr Moses Chibesa

Copperbelt University, Zambia

Dr Chibesa is a Lecturer and Head of the Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences, School of Natural Resources at Copperbelt University, Zambia. His research focuses on the conservation and ecology of birds. Visit Copperbelt University’s Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences.

Professor Robert Fleischer and Dr Carly Muletz Wolz

Smithsonian Institution and University of Maryland, USA

We are collaborating with Rob and Carly at the Smithsonian’s Centre for Conservation Genomics on the metagenomics of brood parasites and their hosts, and in particular the possible role of gut bacteria in facilitating the peculiar ability of honeyguides to digest bees’ wax. Visit the Center for Conservation Genomics.

Dr Tony Fulford

University of Cambridge, UK

We are collaborating with Tony, a statistician and ornithologist, on analyses of the long-term bird breeding data collected by Major John Colebrook-Robjent, and on understanding the thermal costs to eggs of ground-nesting birds in Zambia. Visit Tony’s page.

Professor Rebecca Kilner

University of Cambridge, UK

Gabriel, Claire and Rebecca are collaborating on a Leverhulme Trust-funded project studying the role of phenotypic plasticity in driving evolutionary diversification in Vidua finches. Visit the Kilner Group.

Jeroen Koorevaar

ECO Logisch, The Netherlands

Jeroen is a partner in an environmental consultancy firm, and for many years came annually to Zambia to help chase brood parasites. He has worked especially on honeyguides, and has assisted with two film shoots with us by the BBC Natural History Unit. Visit ECO Logisch.

Professor L. Mahadevan and lab

Harvard University, USA

We are collaborating with Mahadevan and members of his lab (particularly Dr Salem Al-Mosleh and Gary Choi) on mathematical modelling of pattern features in host egg signatures and parasitic egg forgeries. Visit the Mahadevan lab.

Maggie Mwale

Livingstone Museum, Zambia

Maggie is the Assistant Keeper of Ornithology at Livingstone Museum. She has a particular interest in the diverse structures and materials birds use to construct their nest. Visit Livingstone Museum’s Department Ornithology.

Dr Ngawo Namukonde

Copperbelt University, Zambia

Dr Namukonde is a Lecturer in the Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences, School of Natural Resources at the Copperbelt University, Zambia. Her research focuses on the conservation of biological diversity with a particular emphasis on small mammals. Visit Copperbelt University’s Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences.

Dr Steve Portugal and Stephanie McClelland

Royal Holloway, University of London

We collaborate with Steve and Stephanie on understanding the physiological adaptations in brood-parasitic eggs and chicks that may allow them to grow so quickly and so help them to kill or outcompete host young. Visit the Portugal lab.

Stanford Siachoono

Copperbelt University, Zambia

Stanford is a Lecturer in the Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences, School of Natural Resources at the Copperbelt University, Zambia, whose research focuses on conservation and ecosystem management. Visit Copperbelt University’s Department of Zoology and Aquatic Sciences.

Professor Michael Sorenson and lab

Boston University, USA

We are working closely with Mike on the evolutionary genetics of Cuckoo Finches, Tawny-flanked Prinias and honeyguides, and on gene expression in Vidua finches – birds on which Mike and his team have previously carried out classic work. Visit the Sorenson lab.

Professor Martin Stevens

Exeter University, UK 

Martin and Claire have collaborated extensively on Cuckoo Finch research to date, to which Martin’s skills as a sensory ecologist have been pivotal especially in analysing egg phenotypes. In 2012 he and Jolyon Troscianko also joined us in the field to carry out an experiment on Tawny-flanked Prinias. Visit Martin’s Sensory Ecology and Evolution Group.

Dr Mary Caswell Stoddard and lab

Princeton University, USA

We collaborate with Cassie and members her lab (particularly Ben Hogan) on understanding the evolution of mimicry by modelling higher-level pattern features on parasitic eggs and chicks. Visit the Stoddard Lab.

Alumni

Dr Eleanor Caves

Now at Exeter University, UK

Eleanor carried out MPhil (Master’s) research on the evolution of egg signatures in Diederik Cuckoo and Cuckoo Finch hosts, based on the wonderful egg collection of the late Major John Colebrook-Robjent. She then carried out her PhD in Sönke Johnsen’s lab at Duke University, and is now a Marie Curie Fellow at Exeter University. Visit Eleanor’s website.

Luke McClean

Dr Luke McClean

Luke carried out his PhD research in Zambia on coevolutionary interactions between lesser and greater honeyguides and their respective hosts, supported by a Study Abroad studentship from The Leverhulme Trust. He graduated in 2020. Read more here…

Jana Riederer

Now at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Jana carried out an internship working on the cuckoo finch-prinia arms race in Zambia in 2018, with a special focus on chick begging signals and adaptation to different host rearing environments. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2017 and is currently a PhD student at Groningen University. Visit the Groningen Modelling Adaptive Response Mechanisms group.

Dr Marjorie Sorensen

Now at the University of Guelph, Canada

In 2010 Marjorie founded a new project working on the wintering ecology of migratory birds at our study site in Zambia, focussing especially on understanding the evolution of winter song and territoriality, on which she did her PhD at the University of Cambridge. She is now at the University of Guelph in Canada. Visit Marjorie’s webpage.

Dr Wenfei Tong

Now at Nature Publishing Group

Wenfei was a BBSRC-funded postdoc on the evolutionary genetics of host-specific adaptation in cuckoo finches and honeyguides, following her PhD at Harvard University on cooperative mound construction by some fascinating mice. Wenfei is now an Associate Editor of Nature Communications.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko

Now at Exeter University, UK

Together with Jared Wilson-Aggarwal and Martin Stevens, Jolyon worked on the evolution of camouflage in ground-nesting birds (nightjars, plovers and coursers) in Zambia and South Africa. In 2012 Jolyon also worked on Cuckoo Finches. Jolyon is now a NERC Independent Research Fellow at Exeter University. Visit Jolyon’s website.

Dr Jared Wilson-Aggarwal

Now at Exeter University, UK

Together with Jolyon Troscianko, Jared carried out a project on the evolution of camouflage in ground-nesting birds (nightjars, plovers and coursers) in Zambia and South Africa, co-led by Dr Martin Stevens at Exeter University. Jared recently completed his PhD in disease ecology at Exeter University. Visit Jared’s website.

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. 

read more

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.

read more

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!

read more