Roosting Jackdaws

Roosting Jackdaws

Alex Thornton with a meerkat in the Kalahari Desert

Alex Thornton with a meerkat in the Kalahari Desert

Dr Alex Thornton
Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Evolution


Research interests

For further details of my research please visit my group website at:

My research uses a comparative approach to investigate two of the most important issues in behavioural biology: the evolution of intelligence and the biological origins of culture. The vast majority of work on these topics has been conducted on captive animals and so tells us little about the selective pressures operating in natural populations. In contrast, I use a variety of experimental, observational and statistical techniques to understand the factors driving cognitive evolution and cultural information transmission in the wild. Much of my research has been conducted on cooperatively breeding meerkats in the Kalahari Desert. More recently, I have set up set up nest-box populations of wild jackdaws near Cambridge and the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus outside Falmouth. These corvids share many key features with primates, including large brains, complex social systems and extended periods of development, and consequently provide a highly tractable system for studies of the cognitive evolution. My current research focuses on three main areas:

  1. The role of sociality in driving cognitive evolution
  2. The causes and consequences of individual variation in cognitive ability
  3. The effects of social learning on individual and group behaviour

Research projects

Falmouth & Cambridge Jackdaw Projects
Corvids (crows, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies) have brains of a similar size to chimpanzees (relative to the size of their bodies) and are famed for their sophisticated cognitive abilities. However, as almost all research has been conducted in captivity, we have little idea of the factors that favoured the evolution of corvid cognition in nature. Studies of corvids in their natural environment are essential to allow us to better understand cognitive evolution in the animal kingdom. The Falmouth Jackdaw Project and Cambridge Jackdaw Project are dedicated, long-term field sites of corvid cognition, using jackdaws. Jackdaws are highly sociable, inquisitive corvids, making them ideal subjects for cognitive research. They also have the practical advantage over other corvid species that they will take to nest boxes, so they can be easily monitored. My group and I have set up 140 nest boxes in colonies around the village of Madingley, near Cambridge and a further 100 boxes in locations around Falmouth, Cornwall.

Kalahari Meerkat Project
The Kalahari Meerkat Project, run by Tim Clutton-Brock and Marta Manser is a long-term research project comprising multiple groups of individually recognisable, habituated meerkats. My research at the project has examined social learning and development, the evolution of teaching and the establishment of traditions. You can learn more about this work, and about cultural evolution in general, by visiting

Research grants

2011 University of Cambridge
Marmaduke Shield Fund

2010 BBSRC
David Phillips Research Fellowship

2010 British Ecological Society
BES Research Grant

2006 Cambridge Philosophical Society

Research networks

Neeltje Boogert, St Andrews
Nicky Clayton, Cambridge
Tim Clutton-Brock, Cambridge
Will Hoppitt, St Andrews
Andy King, Swansea
Kevin Laland, St Andrews
Dieter Lukas, Cambridge
Andrea Manica, Cambridge
Katherine McAuliffe, Harvard
Nichola Raihani, UCL

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