Academic Staff

Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

   Prof. Claire Spottiswoode
   PhD (University of 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.

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 works on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species. Her 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.  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 mutually beneficial interactions between species. In Mozambique’s beautiful Niassa National Reserve, and in collaboration with the Niassa Carnivore Project, she studies the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that lead them to wild bees’ nests. 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 students


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

Chevonne Reynolds: Trade-offs between biodiversity and agriculture across broad spatial extents

Masters (Dissertation)

Luke McClean: Coevolution in a little-known family of brood-parasitic birds: The 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 and Fanny Ryback.

UCT Graduated students

Masters (Conservation Biology)

Wesley Gush (June 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.

Brood-parasite host coevolution:

  • 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., 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:

  • 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., 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.