Collaborators and con-artists: coevolution as an engine of biodiversity
ZSL Stamford Raffles Lecture 2018, by Claire Spottiswoode, University of Cape Town and University of Cambridge
Ever since Darwin’s wonderful image of a tangled bank of life, we’ve known that interactions between different species are a powerful force in evolution.
Coevolution – the process through which two or more species influence each other’s evolution – continually drives evolutionary change as interacting species reciprocally influence one another.
This talk used African birds as a window into coevolution, showing how it can generate beautiful adaptations and help power the diversification of life.
First, it considered how parasitic interactions between nesting birds and their enemies – cuckoo-like birds that exploit other species to raise their young – can drive parasites to trick hosts by evolving eggs and chicks that beautifully mimic their hosts. But hosts are not just passive victims, and their counter-defences can drive an evolutionary race between new host signatures and new cuckoo forgeries.
The talk then considered mutually beneficial interactions between species, focussing on the cooperative interactions between people and honeyguides, wax-eating birds which lead human honey-hunters to bees’ nests. It showed how human culture drives matching variation in honeyguide behaviour, in those parts of Africa where this part of our own evolutionary history still thrives.
Claire Spottiswoode is a South African evolutionary biologist and naturalist, working jointly at the University of Cape Town and the University of Cambridge, where she is respectively Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology, and Hans Gadow Lecturer / BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow.
Her work focusses on understanding how interactions between different species – parasites and hosts, predators and prey, plants and pollinators, and birds and people – might help to shape the diversification of life.
Together with her collaborators and students, Claire tries to address these questions mainly through fieldwork on birds at long-term study sites in Zambia and Mozambique, where her research depends crucially on close cooperation with local communities who have inspired and enabled these projects. She was one of three recipients of the ZSL’s Scientific Medal in 2016.
The Stamford Raffles Lecture is ZSL's premier event in its annual programme of Science and Conservation Events. Established in 1995, the lectures have been given by eminent speakers on a wide range of zoological topics.