Professor Claire Spottiswoode

Pasvolsky Chair of Conservation Biology

 BSc (Hons) (UCT); PhD (Cambridge)

John Day Building: 2.01


Activities and research interests:

Claire is an evolutionary biologist and passionate naturalist with a particular interest in the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. She runs two long-term field projects on African birds: one in southern Zambia focusing on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and the hosts that they exploit to raise their young (see, and one in northern Mozambique on the mutually beneficial interactions between honeyguides and the human honey-hunters with whom they cooperate to gain access to bees’ nests (see at Both projects involve close cooperation with rural communities, and rely on their local field knowledge and skill.

Claire works jointly at the FitzPatrick Institute (as Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology) and at the University of Cambridge in the UK (as Principal Research Associate 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 returned to South Africa to start a joint position at the FitzPatrick Institute. She supervises research students and teaches at both universities.

Most of Claire’s work is inspired by field observations and, with the help of students, postdocs and interdisciplinary collaborators, she tries to integrate field experiments with approaches drawn from other fields. She has greatly enjoyed collaborating with experts in evolutionary genetics, sensory biology, anthropology, biophysics, applied mathematics, and other fields.

Claire and her team work on both parasitic and mutualistic interactions between species. Since 2006, 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 questions: first, asking how coevolution can escalate into ongoing arms races involving defensive egg signatures in hosts, and mimetic forgeries in parasites. Second, incorporating genetic approaches, asking how host-specificity can evolve within parasitic species that exploit multiple hosts. 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. Please see for more information about this and other ongoing field projects in Zambia.

Claire is also fascinated by the evolution, ecology and conservation of mutually beneficial interactions between species. Since 2013, she and her team have studied the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) that lead them to wild bees’ nests. They 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 for more information about this project.

Back in South Africa, Claire is working with former postdoc Dr Anina Coetzee (now a Lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) 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 Executive Council of the International Society for Behavioural Ecology, and is a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

Current post-docs and students:

Dominic Cram (Cambridge)
Gabriel Jamie (Cambridge)
Jessica van der Wal (UCT)

Mairenn Attwood (Cambridge)
Tanmay Dixit (Cambridge)
Eliupendo Laltaika (UCT)
David Lloyd-Jones (UCT)
Jess Lund (Cambridge)

Cameron Blair (UCT)

Former UCT students and postdocs:


Kyle-Mark Middleton (2023) The individual bases of group behaviour in the cooperative breeding Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri. (co-supervisor to Dr Rita Covas, Dr Kate Carstens and Dr Fanny Ryback)
Amanda Bourne (2020) Can sociality buffer the impacts of climate change on a cooperatively-breeding bird, the southern pied babbler Turdoides bicolor? (co-supervisor to Susie Cunningham and Amanda Ridley)
Luke McClean (2020) Coevolution between the little-known brood parasitic honeyguides and their hosts (co-supervised by Dr Nick Horrocks)

Masters (Dissertation)
Monique du Plessis (2020) The effect of artificial nectar feeders on bird-plant mutualisms in the Cape Fynbos (co-supervisor to Dr Anina Coetzee and Dr Colleen Seymour)
Jess Lund (2021) Coevolutionary causes and consequences of high-fidelity mimicry by a specialist brood parasite. (co-supervised by Dr Gabriel Jamie)

Masters (Conservation Biology)
Amana Othman (2023) Why doesn’t everyone honey hunt in southern Tanzania, and what does this mean for honeyguide birds? (co-supervised by Dr Jessica van der Wal).
Matt Lobenhofer (2023) Conserving seasonal patterns in nature: seasonal insect abundance and diversity in the Afrotropics. (Co-supervised by Chima Nwaogu and Charlene Janion-Scheepers).
Rowan Hickman (2021) How does surface mining impact surrounding Miombo woodland bird communities? (co-supervised by Dr Gabriel Jamie).
Eliupendo Laltaika (2021) Understanding the mutualistic interaction between greater honeyguides and four co-existing human cultures in northern Tanzania. (co-supervised by Dr Jessica van der Wal).
Sarah Casola (2017) The potential impact of climate change on the genetic landscape of the endangered Western leopard toad, Sclerophrys pantherina. (co-supervisor to Dr Krystal Tolley).
Wesley Gush (2017) The ecology and persistence of a highly threatened South African grassland bird, Rudd's lark. (co-supervised by Dr David Maphisa and Dr Paul Donald).

Cameron Blair (UCT) (co-supervised by Dr Jessica van der Wal)
Rion Cuthill (UCT) (co-supervised by Prof. Sally Archibald)

Former UCT postdocs
Dr Anina Coetzee: now Lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa
Dr Chevonne Reynolds: now Senior Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Selected publications:

Please see Google Scholar for a full list.

Brood-parasite host coevolution:

  • Dixit, T., Caves, E.M., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Horrocks, N.P. 2021. Why and how to apply Weber's Law to coevolution and mimicry. Evolution 75: 1906–1919.
  • 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 B 288. 
  • Jamie, G.A., Hamama, S., Moya, C., Kilner, R.M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2021 The limits of host colonisation and speciation in a radiation of parasitic finches. Behavioral Ecology 32: 529-538.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Honeyguide-human mutualism:

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

Bird-plant mutualism:

  • Coetzee, A., Seymour, C.L. and Spottiswoode, C.N. 2021. Facilitation and competition shape a geographical mosaic of flower colour polymorphisms. Functional Ecology  
  • du Plessis, M., Seymour, C.L., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Coetzee, A. 2021. Artificial nectar feeders reduce sunbird abundance and plant visitation in Cape Fynbos adjacent to suburban areas. Global Ecology and Conservation 28.

Avian sociality:

  • Bourne, A.R., Ridley, A.R., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Direct and indirect effects of high temperatures on fledging in a cooperatively breeding bird. Behavioral Ecology 
  • Bourne, A.R., Ridley, A.R., McKechnie, A.E., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Cunningham, S.J2021. Dehydration risk is associated with reduced nest attendance and hatching success in a cooperatively breeding bird, the southern pied babbler Turdoides bicolorConservation Physiology 9. 
  • Bourne, A.R., Cunningham, S.J., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Ridley, A.R. 2020 Hot droughts compromise interannual survival across all group sizes in a cooperatively breeding bird. Ecology Letters 23: 1776-1788.
  • Bourne, A.R., Cunningham, S.J., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Ridley, A.R. 2020 High temperatures drive offspring mortality in a cooperatively breeding bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 287: 20201140.
  • 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.