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

Dr Gabriel Jamie gives a talk on mimicry in parasitic finches at the African BirdFair

Dr Gabriel Jamie gave a talk on mimicry in the parasitic finches of Africa at Birdlife South Africa’s Virtual African Birdfair. Please also see Dr Jessica van der Wal’s talk on our sister research project on honeyguide-human mutualism (more information at www.AfricanHoneyguides.com) and many other great research talks by our colleagues at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Also visit the amazing line-up of other talks at the Virtual African BirdFair, including a talk on bird art by the brilliant Faansie Peacock who has generously allowed us to use his illustrations in several of our scientific publications. Thank you BirdLife South Africa!

read more

Mairenn Attwood submits her MPhil thesis

Congratulations to Mairenn Attwood for successfully submitting her MPhil thesis at the University of Cambridge, entitled ‘Angry birds: does it pay a cuckoo to parasitise a highly aggressive host?’. In it, Mairenn asks whether high levels of aggression by fork-tailed drongos affect hawk mimicry by the African cuckoo, and whether it pays cuckoos to specialise on such aggressive hosts. An amazing feat of field experimental work in Zambia (in collaboration with Jess Lund), analysis and writing in just one year of research – well done Mairenn!

read more

Front cover of Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Dr Gabriel Jamie and Dr Joana Meier’s paper on the persistence of polymorphisms across species radiations is on the front cover of the September issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The cover image provides a specific example of the trans-species polymorphisms that the paper explores. Here, a polymorphism in shell chirality that recurs across multiple species of Amphidromus snails . Photos by Menno & Jan Schilthuizen. You can read the full article here: https://tinyurl.com/ycgdw4lu

read more