Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Biography & Research

Gabriel Jamie with Mozambican Tailorbird

With a Greater Honeyguide in Mozambique

I am South African and did my undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town (1998–2001), followed by PhD research at the University of Cambridge (2002–2005) under the supervision of Professor Nick Davies. I have stayed on in Cambridge since with the kind support of various research fellowships, and in mid-2016 returned to South Africa to start a joint position at the University of Cape Town.

In Cambridge, I am a BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow and the Hans Gadow Lecturer in the Department of Zoology. In Cape Town, I am the Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, part of the Department of Biological Sciences.

I’m interested in the evolution, ecology and conservation of species interactions, and work mainly on African birds. I first began field research on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and their hosts in Zambia in early 2006 (made possible by a Junior Research Fellowship from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, and support from the FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town). Initially I worked primarily on Cuckoo Finches, and have since also focussed on Greater Honeyguides and African Cuckoos.

Most of my work is inspired by field observations and, with the help of collaborators, I try to integrate field experiments with other approaches drawn from population genetics, sensory ecology, and comparative analyses across species.

My focus to date has been in two main areas: first, I’ve been interested in asking how coevolution can escalate into ongoing arms races involving defensive egg signatures in hosts, and mimetic forgeries in parasites. Second, incorporating genetic approaches, I’ve been interested in asking how host-specificity can evolve within parasitic species that exploit multiple hosts. Please see the Research and Study Systems pages on this website for more information on these topics, as well as related questions being pursued by students, postdocs and collaborators working in Zambia.

In addition to brood parasitism, I’m also very interested in mutualistic interactions between species. In Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve, in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project and with the support of the European Research Council, we study the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and Greater Honeyguides who lead them to wild bees’ nests. In South Africa, postdoctoral fellow Dr Anina Coetzee at the University of Cape Town is leading work on how sunbird pollinators may be driving the astonishingly diverse radiation of bird-pollinated Erica species in the Cape Floristic Region’s fynbos vegetation.

I’m widely interested in ornithology and have also worked on nest camouflage, avian sociality, life-history evolution, sexual selection, migration, and the conservation ecology of threatened species in the Horn of Africa and northern Mozambique (please see the links below for more information on some of these topics).

I currently serve on the editorial board of Biology Letters, and am a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

News

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).

read more

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.

read more

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.

read more