Alex Thornton

Alex Alex Thornton

Principal Investigator

Associate Professor of Cognitive Evolution
Centre for Ecology and Conservation
University of Exeter, Penryn Campus
Penryn TR10 9FE

alex.thornton AT

I was born and grew up in Mexico City and later moved to the UK and studied biology in Oxford. I then moved to Cambridge to do a PhD examining how interactions with adults help meerkat pups learn to forage for themselves. Following my PhD, I took up a Drapers’ Company Research Fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge, focusing on the spread of information and the establishment of traditions in meerkat groups. This work has led me to spend much of my career wandering about the Kalahari Desert, but in 2010 I began a programme of research closer to home, investigating culture, cognition and collective behaviour in jackdaws in Cambridgeshire and Cornwall. This work has been funded by a David Phillips Research Fellowship from the BBSRC and a grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program. Other recent lines of research include work on the cognitive foundations of human cumulative culture (funded by the ESRC) and collaborative work on culture in great tits and cognition in Australian magpies. I have been based at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus since October 2012. 

Nicky Clayton, Cambridge
Tim Clutton-Brock, Cambridge
Will Hoppitt, Leeds
Kevin Laland, St Andrews
Dieter Lukas, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Katherine McAuliffe, Boston College
Nichola Raihani, UCL
Amanda Ridley, U of Western Australia
Ben Sheldon, Oxford
Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
  • New paper with UWA collaborators in Nature: Cognitive performance is linked to group size and affects fitness in Australian magpies.

    New HFSP grant: Collective behaviour and information transmission in heterogeneous societies. Collaborating with Nick Ouellette (Stanford) and Richard Vaughan (SFU)


    Cooperative breeding doesn’t make you smarter. New paper open access in Journal of Zoology


    New TREE paper: The evolution of individual and cultural variation in social learning

    New paper on human cumulative culture in Scientific Reports


    Jackdaws recognise human faces! Gabrielle’s new paper is out. See coverage on ITV and BBC


    New ESRC grant! Cognitive Requirements of Cumulative Culture: Expts with Typically Developing and Autistic People. Collaborating with Christine Caldwell & Francesca Happé

    New paper with Oxford collaborators in Nature: cultural conformity in great tits

    Enormous congratulations to Gabrielle who passed her PhD viva. Well done Dr Davidson!

    Comparative cognition can help conservation: read Alison’s new paper in TREE












    Coverage of Gabrielle’s Biology Letters paper in the press and on YouTube












    Gabrielle has a new paper accepted in Biology Letters! 


    Gabrielle’s gaze sensitivity review is out!













    Took part in our survey about corvids in your garden? Click here to see preliminary results.

    New publications: 

    - Comparative cognition for conservationists. Trends Ecol. Evol.

    - Towards wild psychometrics. Behav. Ecol.

    - How and why are some animals so smart?. Behav. Ecol.

    - Jackdaw nestlings can discriminate between conspecific calls but do not beg specifically to their parents. Behav. Ecol.

    – Salient eyes deter conspecific nest intruders in wild jackdaws (Corvus monedula). Biol. Lett.

    – Gaze sensitivity: function and mechanisms from sensory and cognitive perspectives. Anim. Behav.

    – Heterogeneous structure in mixed-species corvid flocks in flight. Anim. Behav.

    Animal Minds: Phil. Trans. issueAnimal Minds e1345931827281 Alex Thornton

    -Identification of learning mechanisms in a wild meerkat population. PloS ONE

    – Innovative problem-solving in wild meerkats. Anim. Behav.

    – How do banded mongooses locate and select anvils for cracking encased food items? Behav. Proc.

    – Teaching can teach us a lot. Anim. Behav.

    – Cooperation and punishment in nature. TREE