Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Biography & Research

Gabriel Jamie with Mozambican Tailorbird

With a Greater Honeyguide in Mozambique

I am an evolutionary biologist and passionate naturalist with a particular interest in the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. I run two long-term field projects on African birds: one in southern Zambia focusing on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and the hosts that they exploit to raise their young (the focus of AfricanCuckoos.com), and one in northern Mozambique on the mutually beneficial interactions between honeyguides and the human honey-hunters with whom they cooperate to gain access to bees’ nests (the focus of AfricanHoneyguides.com). Both projects involve close cooperation with rural communities, and rely on their local field knowledge and skill.

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. I currently supervise research students and teach at both the University of Cape Town and the University of Cambridge.

In Cambridge, I am Principal Research Associate 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 first began field research on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and their hosts in Zambia in early 2006 (enabled by a Junior Research Fellowship from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, and support from the FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town): Cuckoo Finches and their hosts, and subsequently Greater and Lesser Honeyguides, African Cuckoos, Vidua finches, and their hosts.

Most of my work is inspired by field observations and, with the help of students, postdocs and collaborators, I try to integrate field experiments with approaches drawn from other fields. I have greatly enjoyed collaborating with experts in evolutionary genetics, sensory biology, anthropology, biophysics, applied mathematics, and other fields. 

Our work on host-parasite coevolution to date has focussed on two main areas: first, we’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, we’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 fascinated by mutualistic interactions between species. In particular, we study the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and Greater Honeyguides who lead them to wild bees’ nests, in Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve and elsewhere in eastern Africa, in collaboration with the honey-hunting community of Mbamba Village and the Niassa Carnivore Project, and with the support of the European Research Council. This is the topic of a sister website, AfricanHoneyguides.com.

I am also fascinated by plant-animal mutualisms. In South Africa, former postdoctoral fellow Dr Anina Coetzee (now Lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) 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 the evolutionary ecology of birds and have also worked on avian sociality, nest camouflage, 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 Executive Council of the International Society for Behavioural Ecology, and am a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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. 

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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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