Tanmay Dixit

Biography & Research

Tanmay Toucan

I am a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (BA Natural Sciences), studying the evolution and behavioural ecology of brood parasite – host interactions, with fieldwork in Zambia. I graduated from Cambridge in June 2017 and following have studied avian brood parasitism in South Africa and Zambia and interactions between fish species in Trinidadian streams.

Some of my research projects have included studying interactions between pollinators (Heliconius butterflies) and tropical vines (Psiguria), with Prof. Chris Jiggins in Panama, and theoretical work on the interaction between mating systems (specifically self-incompatibility in plants) and genetic barriers with Prof. Nick Barton. I also conducted a meta-analysis on cooperatively breeding vertebrates and maternal effects as one of my Bachelor projects, which has been published in the journal PeerJ.

I am primarily interested in species interactions and behavioural ecology, particularly the consequences of antagonistic arms races on adaptations and animal signals – these interests have been largely inspired by attending seminars and having conversations with members of the Behavioural Ecology Group at Cambridge. Prof. Nick Davies and Prof. Claire Spottiswoode have particularly inspired me and enhanced my interest in both scientific questions and natural history. In particular I have been fascinated by brood parasitism due to the wonderful adaptations, and some seemingly inexplicable maladaptations, that are generated by host-parasite coevolution.

In Zambia I am studying the interactions between cuckoo finches Anomalospiza imberbis and their hosts (family Cisticolidae). I am attempting to understand the mechanisms and adaptive decision-making involved in egg rejection by hosts, as well as why differences exist between some host and parasite eggs. I am collaborating with Prof. L Mahadevan (Harvard) and Dr. Cassie Stoddard (Princeton) to use top-down and bottom-up approaches in studying the evolution of egg signatures and forgeries, and the generation of adaptive repeated randomness. I also aim to understand the effects of coevolutionary arms races, and why outcomes of similar arms races may differ.

Having always been interested in nature, as well as being a keen bird- and wildlife-watcher, I am delighted to be able to pursue these scientific questions in the setting of Zambia’s miombo woodland. A large part of my passion for brood parasitism, ornithology and animal behaviour is inspired by my love of natural history.

Publications

  • Sorensen, M.C., Dixit, T., Newton, J., Kardynal, K., Hobson, K., Bensch, S., Jenni-Eiereman, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2019) Migration distance does not predict blood parasitism in a Palearctic-African migratory bird. Ecology and Evolution 9: 8294-8304. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Dixit, T., English, S. & Lukas, D. (2017), The relationship between egg size and helper number in cooperative breeders: a meta-analysis across species. PeerJ 5:e4028; DOI 10.7717/peerj.4028. Read on journal website [Open Access]

News

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).

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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.

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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.

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