Dr Alex Thornton
Associate Professor of Cognitive Evolution
Daphne du Maurier DDM 3059
Daphne du Maurier Building, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK
Office hours: Monday: 10-11 Tuesday: 10-11
My research group website can be found at www.wildcognitionresearch.com.
We seek to understand how the challenges faced by animals (including humans) in their natural environments shape their mental processes, how the ability to learn from others affects the behaviour of individuals and groups, and how culture itself evolves.
We incorporate approaches from evolutionary biology, psychology and anthropology and work on a range of different study systems. Our current work focuses on cognition and behaviour in wild jackdaws and the cognitive requirements of cumulative culture in humans.
2007 PhD Zoology, University of Cambridge
2003 BA (Hons), University of Oxford
2018 - present Associate Professor in Cognitive Evolution, Exeter
2015 - 2018 Senior Lecturer, Exeter
2012-2015 BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow, Exeter
2010-2012 BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow, Cambridge
2007-2010 Pembroke College Research Fellow, Cambridge
2003-2007 PhD, Cambridge
Research group links
Alex Thornton with a meerkat in the Kalahari Desert
For further details of my research please visit my group website at: www.wildcognitionresearch.com.
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. My early research focused on cooperatively breeding meerkats in the Kalahari Desert. In 2012, I established the Cornish Jackdaw Project; now the world's largest dedicated field system for the study of corvid cognition. In addition to my research on wild animals, I also conduct experimental studies of cultural transmission in humans. My current research focuses on six main areas:
- The role of sociality in driving cognitive evolution
- The causes and consequences of individual variation in cognitive ability
- The effects of social learning on individual and group behaviour
- Collective behaviour in heterogeneous groups
- The cognitive foundations of cumulative culture
- Using cognitive research to promote effective conservation
The Cornish Jackdaw Project
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 Cornish Jackdaw Project is a dedicated, long-term field site for the study of corvid cognition. Jackdaws are highly sociable corvids that form long-term relationships embedded within dynamic social networks, 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. Read more about the Cornish Jackdaw Project here, or follow us on twitter @CornishJackdaws.
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, here.
I have been fortunate enough to collaborate on some great projects with fantastic people. Recent collaborations include work with Lucy Aplin and colleagues on conformity and culture in great tits and Ben Ashton and Mandy Ridley at the University of Western Australia on sociality and cognition in Australian Magpies.
2021 Leverhulme Trust (PI)
The role of relationships in cognitive evolution
2020 Australian Research Council (Co-I, with PI Amanda Ridley, University of Western Australia)
Understanding the relationship between sociality and cognition
2017 Human Frontiers Research Program (PI)
Collective behaviour and information transmission in heterogeneous societies
2015 ESRC (PI)
The cognitive requirements of cumulative culture: experiments with typically developing and autistic people
2014 BBSRC (Co-I, with PI Ben Sheldon, Oxfore)
The social dynamics of cultural behaviour
2014 Australian Research Council (Co-I, with PI Amanda Ridley, University of Western Australia)
The benefits of sociality: cooperation, cognition and fitness in Australian magpies
David Phillips Research Fellowship: The evolution of corvid intelligence
2010 British Ecological Society
BES Research Grant
2006 Cambridge Philosophical Society
Katherine McAuliffe, Boston College
Neeltje Boogert, Exeter
Nichola Raihani, UCL
Amanda Ridley, University of Western Australia
Nicholas Ouellette, Stanford
Richard Vaughan, Simon Fraser University
Nicky Clayton, Cambridge
Tim Clutton-Brock, Cambridge
Marta Manser, Zurich
Will Hoppitt, Leeds
Kevin Laland, St Andrews
Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
Dieter Lukas, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Publications by category
Publications by year
External Engagement and Impact
Member of the editorial boards of Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Scientific Reports.
Reviewer for the following journals: Animal Behaviour, Animal Cognition, Behavioral Ecology, Current Biology, Ecology Letters, Ethology, Nature Communications, PlosOne, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Grant reviewer for the Leverhulme Trust, BBSRC, Royal Society, National Science Foundation (USA); NERC; United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation; Vienna Science and Technology Fund.
Member of the Expert Working Group on Culture and Social Complexity within the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species.
I have given invited seminars at >20 universities around the world, including the universities of Harvard, Edinburgh, Groningen, Keio and Zurich and the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
My research has attracted media attention around the world, with coverage including Science, National Geographic, The New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Enquirer, National Public Radio (USA), The Times (London), The Daily Telegraph, New Scientist, Canadian Broadcasting Company, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service.
You can find links to articles, radio interviews and podcasts at my website: www.wildcognitionresearch.com.
Co-organiser (with Uri Grodzinski and Nicki Clayton) of a major Royal Society Meeting, "Animal Minds: from Computation to Evolution" and associated Kavli Centre satellite meeting "Theories of Minds: the Theoretical Bases of Comparative Cognition".
I coordinate the year 3 module ‘Animal Cogntion’ and teach on the India field course and on Development of Behaviour and Behavioural Ecology in year 2.
Supervision / Group
- Devi Whittle Project Administrator, Cultural Minds project
- Gabrielle Davidson (PhD 2010-2013, Cambridge, with Nicky Clayton) Gaze following in jackdaws
- Alison Greggor (PhD 2012-2015, Cambridge, with Nicky Clayton) Neophobia and innovation in wild jackdaws
- Jolle Jolles BBSRC Research Assistant, Cambridge
- Michael Kings (2013-2017, Exeter, co-supervised by Andy Radford, Bristol) Cooperation, cognition and culture in wild jackdaws
- Rebecca Pearce (MPhil Cambridge, 2012) Social organisation and decision-making in wild jackdaws
- Richard Woods
- Lies Zandberg (MSc Wageningen, 2012) Individual recognition in jackdaws