Adaptation, mimicry and co-evolution in Africa's avian cheats: cuckoo finches, honeyguides, indigobirds & cuckoos



Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

email: cns26 at
tel: (South Africa) +27 21 650 3439
(UK) +44 1223 768 946

Biography & Research

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 heavily 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, and in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project, I 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.

See also: Other Research Interests | Publications | Cambridge page | UCT page