Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Other Research Interests


AFRICAN ORNITHOLOGY AND CONSERVATION. I am South African and my interest in ecology and evolution comes from a life-long passion for African birds and biodiversity. In the last few years I’ve been involved in conservation-related research in, particularly, the arid rangelands of southern and eastern Ethiopia (see publications 45, 383525232120) in collaboration with the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society and BirdLife International, and the montane forests of northern Mozambique (see 5143,1942), each of which is home to many biogeographically intruiguing and increasingly endangered endemic species. I’ve also co-written three birdwatching site guidebooks to southern Africa and Ethiopia.

sociable weaver

AVIAN SOCIALITY. My PhD research (2002-2005), supervised by Nick Davies, partly involved a detailed field study of a colonial, communal and cooperatively-breeding bird, the Sociable Weaver Philetairus socius. This is a remarkable bird of the Kalahari and Namib deserts of south-western Africa, where it builds enormous haystack-like communal nests in Acacia trees. Predation by snakes attracted by the size of weaver colonies appears to be a major cost of extreme sociality in this species. I showed that individuals in colonies of different sizes differ with respect to morphology and reproductive investment (see publication 16), and carried out various field experiments to attempt to distinguish whether these among-colony differences could be explained by adaptive life-history divergence in colonies of different sizes and hence predation risk (see 22). Further to predation, parasitism and disease are also potential costs of sociality. If so, then we would expect cooperatively breeding birds that live in groups to invest more in immune defence than pair breeding species. I carried out a comparative study of South African and Malawian birds and found that this was so, at least with respect to one measure of immunity (see 18). I continue to be involved, through historical data, in ongoing research on Sociable Weavers led by Rita Covas at the University of Porto and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town (see 6450, 4946423629). 

rosy pastor

SEXUAL SELECTION AND BIRD MIGRATION. Migratory birds arrive as early as possible on their breeding grounds not only because of its naturally selected advantages, but also because females prefer early-arriving males as mates. Anders Pape Møller and I showed that this could generate the latitudinal trend that is observed in rates of extra-pair paternity in birds, which are higher in the north-temperate zone where many species are migratory (see publication 7). But spring conditions are not remaining constant, and as the world’s climate warms many migratory birds are arriving earlier and earlier on their breeding grounds. However, the degree of such change varies greatly among species – why is this so? Anders Tøttrup, Tim Coppack and I showed that these differences in species’s responses to climate change might be explained by female choice, since in strongly sexually selected species there is the most incentive to arrive earlier as conditions become milder (see 12; also 10). Nicola Saino and I have written a review chapter on the potential relationships between sexual selection and climate change, in an OUP book published in 2010, Effects of Climate Change on Birds (edited by Møller, Fiedler & Berthold).


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