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Research Fellows Directory

Claire Spottiswoode

Dr Claire Spottiswoode

Research Fellow


University of Cambridge

Research summary

Coevolution is the process by which two or more species reciprocally influence each other’s evolution, and can escalate to produce beautifully refined adaptations. My research on coevolution involves brood parasitic birds, which exploit other species to bear the costs of raising their young. Parasitic birds such as cuckoos can become locked in coevolutionary struggles with their hosts, each to stay one step ahead of the other: parasites evolve ever better manipulation of their hosts (such as mimicry of their eggs), and hosts respond with ever more refined defences to evade parasitism (such as detecting mimetic eggs). Brood parasitism is seen not only in cuckoos, and my field research in Central Africa focuses primarily on two other independent and ancient events where a parasitic lifestyle has evolved in birds. In Cuckoo Finches and their hosts, I use field experiments to study coevolutionary 'arms races' in bird egg appearance, whereby hosts are evolving an ever more extreme diversity of egg colours and patterns to evade mimicry by their pursuing parasite: complex egg appearance foils mimicry just as the intricate designs of banknotes deter forgers. In Greater Honeyguides, I use field experiments to study how host-specific adaptations have evolved, including the astonishingly virulent behaviour of young honeyguides which, while still blind and naked, stab their foster siblings to death with specially adapted bill hooks. In both systems, I also study the evolutionary history of these interactions using genetic approaches, and have found them to be remarkably ancient. My research aims to add to our understanding not only of brood-parasitic adaptations, but also of broader coevolutionary dynamics involving one parasite and multiple hosts or host genetic strains: there are parallels, for example, with the interactions between ourselves and the pathogens that cause our diseases.

Grants awarded

The evolution of polymorphisms in coevolutionary arms races

Scheme: Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2008 - May 2013

Value: £379,107.30

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