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, where I am a Principal Research Associate, 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)

 

News

Cultural Evolution Society grant awarded to Jessica van der Wal

Jessica van der Wal was awarded a grant from the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for her project entitled ‘Cultural mosaic of human-honeyguide mutualism’. This will allow her to grow the pan-African collaborative to document Africa’s remaining diversity of endangered honey-hunting cultures with honeyguide birds. Thank you to the CES for this wonderful support! The growing Honey-hunting Research Network currently exists of researchers in Cameroon (Dr Mazi Sandi and Jacob Wandala), Ghana (Wiro-Bless Kamboe), Eswatini (Sanele Nhlabatsi and Dr Celiwe Ngcamphalala), Malawi (George Malembo M’manga), Nigeria (Anap Ishaku Afan), and Tanzania (Eliupendo Alaitetei Laltaika, Amana Kilawi). Other partners in the project are anthropologist Dr Brian Wood and database manager Farisayi Dakwa.

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Out now: two review papers on human-wildlife cooperation

We have just published two review papers on human-wildlife cooperation, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of 41 scientists, conservationists, and practitioners of human-wildlife cooperation from around the world. These papers were products from discussions started at the Human-Wildlife Mutualism Workshop we organised in January 2021. In “Safeguarding human-wildlife cooperation”, published in Conservation Letters, we review the benefits, threats and unique safeguarding considerations of human-wildlife cooperation. In  “The Ecology and Evolution of Human-Wildlife Cooperation”, published in People and Nature, we provide an overview about what is known about the ecology and evolution of cooperation between humans and wild animals. Abstracts of both papers are available in English, Portuguese, and Kiswahili here. Please also see media coverage from Mongabay, The Conversation, and an interview with Jessica van der Wal in Science.

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Laltaika interviewed by Mongabay

The conservation news website Mongabay interviewed Eliupendo Laltaika, who recently completed his MSc as part of our team, about his research on the ecology and conservation of human-honeyguide mutualism. Laltaika is about to rejoin our team to start his PhD, extending his research on human-honeyguide mutualism in Tanzania.

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