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Department of Zoology



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 currently the BBSRC, and 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 spend half the year. Please see my webpage at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology for more details of students and projects based at UCT.


I'm interested in the evolution, ecology and conservation of species interactions, and work mainly on African birds.  Most of my work is inspired by field observations, and I try to integrate field experiments with other approaches drawn from population genetics, sensory ecology, and comparative analyses across species. My colleagues and I I work on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species, via two long-term field projects:

First, 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. Most of this research happens at a field site in southern Zambia where I've worked together with a wonderful team of local assistants since 2006, and where several colleagues from Cambridge and the University of Cape Town now work too, supported mainly by the BBSRC and The Leverhulme Trust. Please visit for more information about this and other ongoing field projects in Zambia.

Second, we work on the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that lead them to wild bees’ nests. This work is carried out primarily in Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve, in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project and supported by the European Research Council. Please visit for more information about our work on honeyguide-human mutualism.

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 life history evolution, cooperative breeding, nest camouflage, sexual selection, and bird migration, as well as the conservation ecology of threatened species, particularly in the Horn of Africa and in northern Mozambique.


Key publications: 

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 doi:10.1111/evo.14057

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.

BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow and Hans Gadow Lecturer
Principal Research Associate

Contact Details

Accepting applications for PhD students.