Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Other Research Interests

heteromirafra

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).

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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