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

Evolutionary Biology Crash Course

Tanmay Dixit was a member of a team organising and lecturing in the inaugural Evolutionary Biology Crash Course. This course, aimed at undergraduate or early-postgraduate students, teaches evolutionary principles to students who have had limited opportunities to be exposed to evolutionary ideas. The course is funded by the Equal Opportunities Initiative Fund of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB). Tanmay presented lectures on behavioural ecology and evolution, focussing on kin selection, coevolution, and parasitism. Over 700 students, with the vast majority from the global South, attended the course, which was a resounding success!

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New paper on visual complexity & mimicry

Our paper “Visual complexity of egg patterns predicts egg rejection according to Weber’s Law” has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This research was led by Tanmay Dixit, and carried out together with Andrei Apostol, Kuan-Chi Chen, Tony Fulford, Chris Town and Claire Spottiswoode, in a collaboration between biologists and computer scientists. We used machine learning to compute a biologically-relevant measure of egg pattern complexity, and combined this with field experiments in Zambia to investigate how complexity evolves in an arms race between host egg signatures (by tawny-flanked prinias) and parasitic egg forgeries (by cuckoo finches).

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Fieldwork and teaching at APLORI, Nigeria

Dr Gabriel Jamie is continuing his fieldwork on the evolution of polymorphisms in cisticolas and prinias in Nigeria, where he is also a teaching fellow at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI). The image shows the 2022 APLORI MSc class during the Global Birding Big Day on 14 May. The team recorded 135 species while walking around the nature reserve surrounding the institute.

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New paper on the genetics of cuckoo finch egg mimicry

Our paper “Genetic architecture facilitates then constrains adaptation in a host-parasite coevolutionary arms race” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In it, we address the long-standing puzzle of how exquisite mimicry of the eggs of several different host species can evolve within a single species of brood-parasitic bird. We show that in cuckoo finches in Zambia, egg mimicry of different host egg phenotypes is maternally inherited, which allows mothers to transmit host-specific adaptations to their daughters irrespective of which host species the father was raised by. This study was a team effort from colleagues at the University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town (Claire Spottiswoode, Wenfei Tong, Gabriel Jamie), at Boston University (Katherine Stryjewski, Jeff DaCosta, Evan Kuras and Michael Sorenson) and in the Choma community in Zambia (Ailsa Green, Silky Hamama, Ian Taylor and Collins Moya).

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