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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.

I work on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species. My main focus for the last ten years has been 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, I am 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 my 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 here in Cambridge now work too, supported mainly by the BBSRC and The Leverhulme Trust. Please see for more information about this and other ongoing field projects in Zambia.

More recently I’ve also begun working on mutually beneficial interactions between species. In Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve, supported by the European Research Council and in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project, we study the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that 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 the evolutionary ecology of birds, and have also worked on life history evolution, 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: 

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

Room F29
01223 (7)68946
Accepting applications for PhD students.