Dr Ben Ashton

PhD (University of Western Australia)

Ben currently holds an Australian Research Council DECRA fellowship at Macquarie University, Sydney. Prior to this, he has held postdoctoral positions at the University of Western Australia and the University of Bristol. The majority of Ben’s research investigates the causes and consequences of individual variation in cognition, with a particular emphasis on exploring the relationship between sociality and cognition.

Ben’s PhD, carried out at the University of Western Australia under the supervision of Professors Mandy Ridley and Alex Thornton, investigated the causes and consequences of individual variation in cognitive performance in the Australian magpie. Ben found empirical evidence in support of the ‘social intelligence hypothesis’ (SIH). The SIH is one of the predominant hypotheses for the evolution of cognition and states that the demands of social life drive cognitive evolution.

Whilst postdoc-ing in Bristol, Ben, alongside Prof. Andy Radford and Dr Patrick Kennedy, conceived a new hypothesis for the evolution of intelligence – that threats and opportunities from conspecific outsiders drive cognitive evolution. Predictions about the social drivers of cognitive evolution have largely focused on within-group interactions, overlooking an entire axis of sociality: interactions with conspecific outsiders. It was hypothesised that outsiders present a number of unique cognitive challenges, such as conflict with rivals over resources and territory space, conflict with rivals over mating opportunities, and contest dynamics when there are adversarial interactions between rivals. Such challenges have the potential to select for intelligence. Using the white-browed sparrow-weaver as a study system, Ben’s DECRA will test the predictions of an expanded SIH, incorporating the challenges posed by groupmates and outsiders, in order to determine the relationship between the complete social environment and cognition.

Ben also has a keen interest in exploring the relationship between anthropogenic change and cognition. Alongside Mandy Ridley, Ben is currently supervising several students who are investigating the effect of heat stress and anthropogenic noise on cognitive development. This research is being carried out on long-term study populations of southern pied babblers and Australian magpies. This work is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project.

Selected publications

Soravia, C., Ashton, B. J. & Ridley, A. R. The impacts of heat stress on animal cognition: Implications for adaptation to a changing climate. WIREs Climate Change. (2021). doi:10.1002/wcc.713

Ashton, B. J., Kennedy, P. & Radford, A. N. Interactions with conspecific outsiders as drivers of cognitive evolution. Nat. Communications. 11, 4937 (2020).

Ashton, B. J., Thornton, A. & Ridley, A. R. Larger group sizes facilitate the emergence and spread of innovations in a group-living bird. Animal Behaviour. 158, 1–7 (2019).

Pike, K. N., Ashton, B. J., Morgan, K. V., & Ridley, A. R. Social and Individual Factors Influence Variation in Offspring Care in the Cooperatively Breeding Western Australian Magpie. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7(April), 1–13 (2019). https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00092.

Ashton, B. J., Ridley, A. R. & Thornton, A. Smarter through group living: A response to Smulders. Learning and Behaviour 1–3 (2018). doi: https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0366-6

Ashton, B. J., Thornton, A. & Ridley, A. R. An intraspecific appraisal of the social intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 373, (2018).

Ashton, B. J., Ridley, A. R., Edwards, E. K. & Thornton, A. Cognitive performance is linked to group size and affects fitness in Australian magpies. Nature 554, 364–367 (2018).

Ridley, A. R. & Ashton, B. J. The benefits of an evolutionary framework for the investigation of teaching behaviour: Emphasis should be taken off humans as a benchmark. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 38, E59 (2015).

Flower, T. P., Ashton, B. J., Zöttl, E., Olinger, R. M. & Hockey, P. A. Dual parasitism of Fork-tailed Drongos by African and Jacobin Cuckoos. Ostrich 86, 189–191 (2015).