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Department of Zoology

 

Biography

I joined the department in 2002 as a PhD student (supervised by Professor Nick Davies), coming from the University of Cape Town in my home country of South Africa. I've stayed on ever since with the kind support of a series of research fellowships from Sidney Sussex College, The Royal Society, and the BBSRC. I am currently supported by a European Research Council Consolidator grant. I am a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College.

I now work jointly at the University of Cambridge and at the University of Cape Town, where I am Pola Pasvolsky Chair of Conservation Biology at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. I supervise research students and teach at both institutions.

Research

I am an evolutionary biologist and passionate naturalist with a particular interest in the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. My team and I work on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species, via two long-term field projects in central and eastern Africa. Both projects involve close cooperation with rural communities, and rely on their local field knowledge and skill.

Host-parasite coevolution: We work on coevolutionary arms races between brood-parasitic birds (such as cuckoos, honeyguides and parasitic finches) and the host species they exploit to bear the costs of raising their young. In hosts, we are particularly interested in the evolution of defensive adaptations against brood parasites that mimic their eggs, such as visual 'signatures' that are difficult for parasites to forge. In parasites, my collaborators and I are trying to understand the genetic mechanisms that allow a single species of brood parasite to evolve highly specialised adaptations (such as egg mimicry) to exploit multiple host species at once. This research happens at a field site in southern Zambia, enabled by a wonderful team of local field assistants, and supported primarily by the BBSRC, Leverhulme Trust, Royal Society, and DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute (University of Cape Town). Please visit AfricanCuckoos.com for more information about this and other ongoing field projects in Zambia.

Human-honeyguide mutualism: We study the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that lead them to wild bees’ nests. We work primarily in Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa Special Reserve, in collaboration with the honey-hunting community of Mbamba Village and the Niassa Carnivore Project, and supported by a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council. Please see AfricanHoneyguides.com for more information about this project.

Also on the theme of mutualisms, 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 the evolutionary ecology of birds and have also worked on avian sociality, nest camouflage, life-history evolution, sexual selection, migration, and the conservation ecology of threatened species in the Horn of Africa and northern Mozambique.

Publications

Key publications: 

Caves, E.M., Dixit, T., Colebrook-Robjent, J.F.R., Hamusikili, L., Stevens, M., Thorogood, R. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2021 Hosts elevate either within-clutch consistency or between-clutch distinctiveness of egg phenotypes in defence against brood parasites. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (in press)

Coetzee, A., Seymour, C.L. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2021 Facilitation and competition shape a geographical mosaic of flower colour polymorphisms. Functional Ecology (in press)

Jamie, G.A., Van Belleghem, S., Hogan, B., Hamama, S., Moya, C., Troscianko, J., Stoddard, M.C., Kilner, R.M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2020 Multimodal mimicry of hosts in a radiation of parasitic finches. Evolution 74: 2526-2538.

Spottiswoode, C.N. & Busch, R. 2019 Vive la difference! Self/non-self recognition and the evolution of signature polymorphism in arms races with parasites. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374: 20180206.

Stevens, M., Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J.K. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2017 Improvement of individual camouflage through background choice in ground-nesting birds. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1325-1333.

Caves, E.M., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2017 Does coevolution with a shared parasite drive hosts to partition their defences among species? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 284: 20170272

Spottiswoode, C.N., Begg, K.S. & Begg, C.M. 2016 Reciprocal communication in human-honeyguide mutualism. Science 353: 387-389.

Caves, E.M., Stevens, M., Iversen, E. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2015 Hosts of brood parasites have evolved egg signatures with elevated information content. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282: 20150598.

Feeney, W.E., Troscianko, J., Langmore, N.E. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2015 Evidence for aggressive mimicry in an adult brood parasitic bird, and generalised defences in its host. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282: 2015079.

Spottiswoode, C.N. 2013 A brood parasite selects for its own eggs traits. Biology Letters 9: 20130573

Stevens, M., Troscianko, J. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2013 Repeated targeting of the same hosts by a brood parasite compromises host egg rejection. Nature Communications 4: 2475.

Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2012 Host-parasite arms races and rapid changes in bird egg appearance. American Naturalist 179: 633-648.

Spottiswoode, C.N. & Koorevaar, J. 2012 A stab in the dark: chick killing by brood parasitic honeyguides. Biology Letters 8: 241-244.

Spottiswoode, C.N., Stryjewski, K.F., Quader, S., Colebrook-Robjent, J.F.R. & Sorenson, M.D. 2011 Ancient host-specificity within a single species of brood parasitic bird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 17738-17742

Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2011 How to evade a coevolving brood parasite: egg discrimination versus egg variability as host defences. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 278: 3566-3573.

Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2010 Visual modeling shows that avian host parents use multiple visual cues in rejecting parasitic eggs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107: 8672-8676.

Other publications: 

Please see my Google Scholar profile for a complete list.

Principal Research Associate
Hans Gadow Lecturer
Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology (University of Cape Town)
Claire Spottiswoode
Accepting applications for PhD students.