Mairenn Attwood

Biography & Research

Mairenn Attwood

Mairenn is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, exploring the co-evolutionary arms race between hosts and brood parasites in Zambia. She remains driven by the same curiosity that spurred her interest in science from a young age (despite early set-backs including a failed experiment to grow a haribo tree).

Graduating in Natural Sciences in 2019, her undergraduate degree focussed her fascination with behavioural ecology, conservation and evolution.  She worked on various projects, including the impact of parasitic plants on invasive Oxalis, the function of buccal oscillations in túngara frogs, and interactions between pollen beetles and rock roses. She was also an intern with the Insect Ecology group in Cambridge, examining invertebrate diversity across ancient and recently planted woodland. In her final year project, she investigated behavioural responses to kleptoparasitism risk in sticklebacks, supervised by Professor Nick Davies. Across these diverse taxa, interactions between individuals and species emerged as a central research interest.

Mairenn joined the Zambian team for her MPhil, supervised by Prof. Claire Spottiswoode, where she worked with African cuckoos (Cuculus gularis) and their fork-tailed drongo hosts (Dicrurus adsimilis). The project investigated the trade-offs involved when parasites target aggressive hosts – focussing on front-line defences as well as nest survival rates. It also explored evidence for edge effects on these species at the study site, which is a matrix of farmland and miombo woodland.

Mairenn is continuing to work with drongos and African cuckoos for the PhD, broadening her research to understand drongos’ contradictory roles as both manipulators and manipulated. This project proposes to tackle questions of recognition, cognition and evolutionary pressures on drongos, situating their arms race within a wider ecological context.

Mairenn also enjoys scientific communication, engaging in outreach and co-directing content at Climate Science (an app producing resources for teenagers about climate change).


Dr Gabriel Jamie awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Dr Gabriel Jamie has been awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship based at University of Cambridge. For the fellowship Gabriel will build on his previous work on brood parasitism and the evolution of polymorphisms to understand the incredible diversity of egg...

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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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