The behavioural ecologist whose first word was spider

An adventurous childhood in southern Africa laid the foundations for Jenny York’s career in evolutionary biology. She did her PhD fieldwork in the Kalahari where she researched the song of an ordinary-looking bird with a remarkable social life. She has since worked in fields that stretch from animal communication to host-parasite interactions.

Jenny York (D Cram)

I’ve always been captivated by the natural world. Even creatures like parasites that most people think are disgusting fascinate me. As a child, I remember going to an agricultural show and seeing a jar of formalin housing a huge tapeworm specimen. It was so alien and looked more like an organ than an entire animal.

My first word was spider. I was born in Aberystwyth, the youngest of four girls. Before my first birthday, my parents took us to Zimbabwe where my father had a job at the plant breeding station. He was researching grasses to alleviate erosion on agricultural land. My mother is an arachnology enthusiast. Spotting spiders with her was my first step towards life as a zoologist.

Jenny York on a family camping trip to the Zambezi river (Christine York)

We did lots of camping trips, pitching our tent at sites where elephants sauntered past. As the youngest, I travelled in the boot of the family Renault estate. Sitting among the luggage, I amused myself by looking at the pictures of birds and snakes in the Bundu Series field guides. This was my introduction to Zimbabwe’s rich flora and fauna.

In Marondera, I went to a school where I was the only British kid in my class. When it was time for English language lessons, I was sent outside to play. I’ve always loved being outdoors. Even today when I come back to my office after a summer working in the field, I feel a sense of being a bit captive.

Jenny York and school friends at Marondera (Christine York)

We returned to the UK to live in north Wales when I was eight. It was a big shock as it was winter and I thought I’d come to live in a place where nothing was alive. In Africa I was used to seeing frogs in the shower and geckos shimmying up the living room walls. Gradually I realised that there was fascinating wildlife in Britain, too.

I deferred the start of my undergraduate degree for a year. I worked in a lab analysing soil samples to pay my way to explore Australia, where I travelled and worked on various conservation projects. Both experiences were great preparation for a degree in Zoology at Bristol which offered the perfect combination of courses for my interests in conservation, animal behaviour and evolutionary parasitology.

I devoured books about wildlife and was glued to David Attenborough’s documentaries. As an undergraduate at Bristol I read Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. It marked a turning point in how I think about the natural world, as I began to appreciate animal behaviour through an evolutionary lens.

Jenny York at Wicken Fen (D Cram)

On the Bristol Evolutionary Parasitology course I encountered cuckoos for the first time. Afterwards I dashed to the library and borrowed Cuckoos, Cowbirds and Other Cheats by Nick Davies. I never thought that one day I’d be one of Nick’s colleagues at Cambridge. I’ve recently been working with him at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire where he’s been studying interactions between cuckoos and reed warblers for the past 30 years.

The organisms I’ve researched range from Protopolystoma parasites and Xenopus toads to weaver birds. Most recently, I’ve been studying the call of the female cuckoo which ties together my interests in vocal communication and evolutionary parasitology. The female’s call is a rapidly repeated high-pitched sound, very different from the male’s two-note call.

Cuckoo chick (D Cram)

Female cuckoos are secretive and produce their call infrequently. Typically they call after laying, which was quite a puzzle. Why do they risk drawing attention to their crime of laying an egg in another bird’s nest? My research looks at how this call misdirects the host bird’s attention by sounding similar to the call of predatory birds. This timely distraction increases the chance that foster parents accept the cuckoo egg.

Adult cuckoo (Jenny York)

Looking back at my career, several people stand out. At school in Flint, I had a brilliant biology teacher called Gareth Royals. Biology was my favourite subject and he made every page of the syllabus come to life.

At Bristol, Arthur Goldsmith was a huge influence. He was absolutely rigorous about experimental design. For my final year honours project, I studied robins to investigate whether urban noise influenced their song. This was my first experience of designing and carrying out a research project and I was hooked.

I did the research for my PhD in the African Kalahari Desert. I studied the social life and songs of the white-browed sparrow weaver — a dull-looking bird with a fascinating private life. I was based in a game reserve called Tswalu, where I lived in a small research station tucked away from the luxury lodge for tourists. I met some fantastic people there — including the fellow zoologist who later became my husband.

Jennny York records weaver song in the Kalahari (D Cram)

You need to be physically resilient and patient to be a zoologist working in the field. To record song, I had to get up very early and travel to the field site before dawn. Once, out in the bush at Tswalu, an aardvark bumped into me as I waited in the pitch dark. I could hear it approaching, sounding like a wheezy old man and didn’t know what it was. After encountering me, it hastily lumbered away.

Today I feel incredibly privileged to work and live in Cambridge. If you’d asked me as a teenager what Cambridge was like, I’d have described it as being full of unapproachably brilliant people. Yes, my colleagues are brilliant, but it’s also a diverse and friendly place. The Behavioural Ecology research group introduced me to the work of Rebecca Kilner, Claire Spottiswoode and Sinead English, to name a few, who are truly inspirational female role models in our field.

Jenny York catches weaver birds at night (D Cram)

My chief hobby is photography which fits in well with my field work. I have an excellent tutor in my husband who is a much better photographer than I am. We often spend weekends taking pictures of wildlife. I use Canon and he uses Nikon so it’s miraculous that we get on at all.

Last year we went to Zimbabwe to revisit some of the beautiful places from my childhood. Only then did I fully realise just how brave my parents were to take their four little girls to live so far from home. Those eight years in Zimbabwe, absorbing the African sunshine and observing wildlife, made me who I am.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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