African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Claire Spottiswoode

Biography

­I am an evolutionary biologist and passionate naturalist with a particular interest in the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. I run two long-term field projects on African birds: one in southern Zambia focusing on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds (such as cuckoos, honeyguides and parasitic finches) and the hosts that they exploit to raise their young, and one in northern Mozambique (since 2013), on the topic of this website: the mutually beneficial interactions between honeyguides and the human honey-hunters with whom they cooperate to gain access to bees’ nests. Aside from parasitism and mutualism, I’m widely interested in ecology, evolution, ornithology and conservation, and have also worked on avian sociality, life-history evolution, pollination, sexual selection, nest camouflage, migration, and the conservation ecology of threatened species in the Horn of Africa and northern Mozambique. I work partly in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and partly at the University of Cape Town, where I am Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Most of my work is inspired by natural history, and I strongly believe in the value of field experiments.

Research Focus

Our honeyguide research project began in 2013, thanks to a chance meeting in the northern Mozambican bush with Keith Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project. Keith showed me that here, in the Niassa Special Reserve, the remarkable relationship between honeyguides and humans still thrives. Our initial research focus was on communication, showing experimentally that not only do humans understand the signals that honeyguides use to show them bees’ nests, but honeyguides, too, understand the specialised signals that honey-hunters give to advertise to honeyguides that they are seeking their help. This inspired the programme of work we are now carrying out as a team, with the wonderful support of the European Research Council, and in close collaboration with honey-hunting communities and interdisciplinary colleagues from several fields.

For more information on our research on the other side of honeyguides’ lives, as cuckoo-like brood parasites of other birds, please visit our sister project in Zambia at www.africancuckoos.com.

Selected recent publications:

(Please see Google Scholar for a full publication list)

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.

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

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.

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

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.

News

Eliupendo Laltaika gives a talk in the Leadership for Conservation in Africa series

Eliupendo Laltaika gave a talk on his career journey and conservation work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, as part of the Leadership for Conservation in Africa seminar series. Laltaika gives us great insight into his journey from killing wildlife for retaliation as a young man, through to becoming a wildlife ranger, founding a conservation NGO (the Ngorongoro Biodiversity Conservation Project), and currently doing his Masters studies at the University of Cape Town and carrying out research on honeyguide-human mutualism as part of our team.

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Dr Jessica van der Wal gives a talk on honeyguide mutualism research at the African BirdFair

Jessica van der Wal gave a talk on honeyguide-human mutualism as part of a session on research at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, at Birdlife South Africa’s Virtual African Birdfair. Dr Gabriel Jamie gave a talk on mimicry in the parasitic finches of Africa , representing our sister research project on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and their hosts (more information at www.AfricanCuckoos.com). See also the amazing line-up of other talks at the Virtual African BirdFair – thank you BirdLife South Africa!

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UCT student Rion Cuthill joins us for a week

This week we are joined by Rion Cuthill, a third year student at UCT studying towards a B.Sc. in Ecology and Evolution and Applied Statistics. Rion is helping us to obtain estimates of population sizes of villages in Niassa Special Reserve through remote sensing, an essential parameter to understand the economic value of the honeyguide-human mutualism, and in models trying to understand the variation in honey-hunting cultures. Rion is an avid birder and general naturalist during his spare time.
 

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