Academic Staff

Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

   Prof. Claire Spottiswoode
   BSc (Hons) (UCT); PhD (Cambridge)

   John Day Building: 2.01
   Tel:  +27 (0)21 650 3439
   Fax: +27 (0)21 650 3295


Activities and research interests

Claire is interested in the evolution, ecology and conservation of species interactions. She works jointly at the FitzPatrick Institute (as Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology) and at the University of Cambridge in the UK (as a BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow and Hans Gadow Lecturer). Claire is from Cape Town and did her undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town (1998–2001), followed by PhD research (2002–2005) at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of Professor Nick Davies. She continued at Cambridge with the kind support of various research fellowships, and in mid-2016 started a joint position at the FitzPatrick Institute, working part-time at both universities.

Most of her work is inspired by field observations, and she tries to integrate field experiments with other approaches drawn from population genetics, sensory ecology, and comparative analyses across species.

Claire and her team work on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species. For over a decade, she has been working 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.  Together with collaborators, she has focussed on two main areas. First, asking how hosts evolve defensive adaptations against brood parasites that mimic their eggs, such as visual 'signatures' of identity that are difficult for parasites to forge. Second, asking what genetic mechanisms can allow a single parasitic species to evolve specialised adaptations (such as egg mimicry) to exploit multiple host species at once.  Much of Claire’s research happens at a field site in southern Zambia where she has worked together with a wonderful team of local assistants since 2006, and where several colleagues from Cambridge and Cape Town now work too. Please see for more information about this and other ongoing field projects in Zambia.

More recently Claire has also begun working on the evolution, ecology and conservation of mutually beneficial interactions between species. In Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve, and in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project, she and her colleagues study the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that lead them to wild bees’ nests. Since 2017, this project has been supported by a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council.

Back 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.

Claire has wide interests in ornithology and has also worked on avian sociality, nest camouflage, sexual selection, and bird migration, as well as the conservation ecology of threatened species particularly in the Horn of Africa and northern Mozambique. She is a life-long birdwatcher and has co-authored three birding guidebooks to Ethiopia and southern Africa. She currently serves on the editorial board of Biology Letters, and is a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

Current UCT Post-docs and students


Anina Coetzee: The influence of sunbird pollinators and land use change on flower colour polymorphisms in the Erica genus.

Jessica van der Wal: The ecology and evolution of the mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides.


Kyle-Mark Middleton: The individual bases of group behaviour in the cooperative breeding Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri. (Co-supervisors: Rita Covas, Kate Carstens, Fanny Ryback)

Masters (Dissertation)

Monique du Plessis:   The effect of sugar water feeders on the sunbird and Erica populations in the Cape Floristic Region (Co-supervisors: Anina Coetzee, Colleen Seymour). Submitted Dec 2020/

David Lloyd-Jones:  Mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator).

Jess Lund: Interactions between the African cuckoo (Cuculus gularis) and its host, the fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis), in the miombo woodlands of southern Zambia. (Co-supervisor: Gabriel Jamie)

Current Cambridge Post-docs and students 

Dr Dominic Cram

Tanmay Dixit

Dr Gabriel Jamie

UCT Graduated students:


Amanda Bourne: Can social behaviour, particularly load-sharing, buffer against fitness costs associated with heat stress?  (Co-supervisors: Susie Cunningham, Amanda Ridley)

Luke McClean: Coevolution in a little-known family of brood-parasitic birds: the honeyguides. (Co-supervisor: Nicholas Horrocks)

Masters (Conservation Biology)

Sarah Casola (2017) The potential impact of climate change on the genetic landscape of the endangered Western leopard toad, Sclerophrys pantherina. (Principal supervisor: Krystal Tolley)

Wesley Gush (2017) The ecology and persistence of a highly threatened South African grassland bird, Rudd's lark. (Co-supervisors: Paul Donald, David Maphisa)

Selected publications:

Please see Google Scholar for a full list.

Honeyguide-human mutualism:

  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Begg, K.S. & Begg, C.M. 2016. Reciprocal signaling in honey-guide-human mutualism. Science 353: 387-389.

Brood-parasite host coevolution:

  • 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.
  • Stoddard, M.C., Hogan, B., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2019 Higher-level pattern features provide additional information to birds when recognizing and rejecting parasitic eggs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374: 20180197.
  • 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
  • Péron, G., Altwegg, R., Jamie, G.A. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. Coupled range dynamics of brood parasites and their hosts responding to climate and vegetation changes. Journal of Animal Ecology 85: 1191–1199.
  • 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.
  • 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. 2013. A brood parasite selects for its own egg traits. Biology Letters 9: 20130573.
  • 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.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. 2010. The evolution of host-specific variation in cuckoo eggshell strength. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23: 1792–1799.

Avian sociality:

  • Spottiswoode, C.N. 2013. Perspectives: How cooperation defeats cheats. Science 342: 1452–1453.
  • van Dijk, R.E., Eising, C.M., Merrill, R.M., Karadas, F., Hatchwell B.J. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2013. Maternal effects in the highly communal sociable weaver may exacerbate brood reduction and prepare offspring for a competitive social environment. Oecologia 171: 379–389.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. 2009. Fine-scale life-history variation in Sociable Weavers in relation to colony size. Journal of Animal Ecology 78: 504–512.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. 2008. Cooperative breeding and immunity: a comparative study of PHA response in African birds. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 62: 963–974.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. 2007. Phenotypic sorting in morphology and reproductive investment among sociable weaver colonies. Oecologia 154: 589–600.

Migratory birds:

  • Sorensen, M.C., Fairhurst, G.D., Jenni-Eiermann, D., Newton, J., Yohannes, E. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. Seasonal rainfall at long-term migratory staging sites is associated with altered carry-over effects in a Palearctic-African migratory bird. BMC Ecology 16: 41.
  • Sorensen, M.C., Jenni-Eiermann, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. Why do migratory birds sing on their tropical wintering grounds? American Naturalist 187: E65–E76.
  • Sorensen, M.C., Asghar, M., Bensch, S., Fairhurst, G.D., Jenni-Eiermann, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. A rare study from the wintering grounds provides insight into the costs of malaria infection for migratory birds. Journal of Avian Biology 57: 575–582.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Tøttrup, A.P. & Coppack, T. 2006. Sexual selection predicts response of migratory birds to climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 273: 3023–3029.
  • Spottiswoode, C. & Møller, A.P. 2004. Extra-pair paternity, migration and breeding synchrony in birds. Behavioral Ecology 15: 41–57.

Nest camouflage:

  • 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.
  • Troscianko, J. Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Griffiths, D., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2017. Relative advantages of dichromatic and trichromatic color vision in camouflage breaking. Behavioral Ecology 28: 556-564.
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 201.6 Nest covering in plovers: how modifying the visual environment influences egg camouflage. Ecology and Evolution doi: 10.1002/ece3.2494
  • Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Troscianko, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. Escape distance in ground-nesting birds differs with level of individual camouflage. American Naturalist 188: 231–239.
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2016. Camouflage directly predicts the survival probability of ground-nesting birds. Scientific Reports 6: 19966.

Threatened species:

  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Fishpool, L.D.C. & Bayliss, J.L. 2016. Birds and biogeography of Mt Mecula, in Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve. Ostrich 87: 281–284
  • Mills, M.S.L., Cohen, C., Francis, J.E. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2015. A survey for the Critically Endangered Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri in Somaliland, north-western Somalia. Ostrich 86: 291–294.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Olsson, U., Mills, M.S.L., Cohen, C., Francis, J.E., Dagne, A., Toye, N., Hoddinott, D., Wood, C., Donald, P.F., Collar, N.J. & Alström, P. 2013. Rediscovery of a long-lost lark reveals the conspecificity of endangered Heteromirafra populations in the Horn of Africa. Journal of Ornithology 154: 813–825.
  • Donald, P.F., Gedeon, K., Collar, N.J., Spottiswoode, C.N., Wondafrash, M. & Buchanan, G.M. 2012. The restricted range of the Ethiopian Bush-crow Zavattariornis stresemanni is a consequence of high reliance on modified habitats within narrow climatic limits. Journal of Ornithology 153: 1031–1044.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Wondafrash, M, Gabremichael, M.N., Dellelegn, Y., Mwangi, M.K., Collar, N.J. & Dolman, P.M. 2009. Rangeland degradation is poised to cause Africa’s first recorded avian extinction. Animal Conservation 12: 249–257.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Patel, I.H., Herrmann, E., Timberlake, J. & Bayliss, J. 2008. Threatened bird species on two little-known mountains (Mabu and Chiperone) in northern Mozambique. Ostrich 79: 1–7.