African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Prof. Claire Spottiswoode

Claire Spottiswoode


­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

Selected recent publications:

(Please see Google Scholar for a full publication list)

van der Wal, J.E.M., Gedi, I. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2022 Awer honey-hunting culture with greater honeyguides in coastal Kenya. Frontiers in Conservation Science 2: 727479.

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 of London B 288: 20210326.

Coetzee, A., Seymour, C.L. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2021 Facilitation and competition shape a geographical mosaic of flower colour polymorphisms. Functional Ecology 35: 1914-1924.

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.

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


New collaborative paper on honeyguide-human cooperation in Kenya

In a new paper in Frontiers in Conservation Science in collaboration with Isa Gedi, we report on the honey-hunting culture with greater honeyguides of the Awer people in Kenya. Awer honey-hunters depend on wild honey as a source of income, and readily seek the cooperation of honeyguides. To attract honeyguides, they whistle on the shell of a Giant African Land Snail. We thank the interviewees for sharing their honey-hunting culture with us.

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Laltaika awarded a Distinction for his MSc dissertation

Warmest congratulations to Eliupendo Laltaika, whose MSc research dissertation “Understanding the mutualistic interaction between greater honeyguides and four co-existing human cultures in northern Tanzania” was awarded with Distinction. Laltaika will graduate with an MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town in December, and will rejoin the Honeyguide Research Project team as a PhD student from 2022. The image shows Laltaika interviewing a Ndorobo honey-hunter in September 2020, as part of his research on the honey-hunting cultures of Maasai, Sonjo, Hadzabe and Ndorobo communities in Tanzania.

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Honours students Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair complete projects

Congratulations to Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair for successfully finalising their University of Cape Town Honours research dissertations hosted by our project. Rion’s thesis was titled ‘Where there is smoke, is there fire? The role of the honeyguide-human mutualism in African savannah fire ecology’ and supervised by Claire Spottiswoode and Sally Archibald. Cameron’s thesis was titled ‘Does the remarkable guiding call of the Greater Honeyguide develop from its begging call?’ and supervised Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal.

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