Rachael Shaw

Teaching in 2020

Personal Bio

PhD University of Cambridge | BSc (Honours) University of Auckland

In the final year of my BSc (Biology, University of Auckland) I took an elective paper in Psychology. This introduced me to the study of comparative cognition and marked the beginning of my ongoing fascination with understanding how non-human minds work and how evolution shapes cognitive abilites.  My PhD studies in the Psychology Department at the University of Cambridge used behavioural-based experiments to gain insight into the mental lives of Eurasian jays. In 2013, I returned home to New Zealand. After a brief stint as a Scientific Advisor for Greenpeace NZ, I was awarded a Marsden Fast-Start grant and began a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington in 2014. I am now a Rutherford Discovery Fellow and the head of the Wild Cognition Lab. For more information about our lab, please visit  the Cognition and Behaviour Research webpage.

Research Interests

I am fascinated by animal behaviour and cognition. My research interests have previously ranged from evaluating potential evolutionary pathways for brood parasitic behaviour in birds to testing the cognitive abilities of elephants and crows. My current research has two broad themes:

1) Investigating the extent of cognitive abilities in non-human animals

I use behavioural-based experiments to challenge the assumption that some aspects of cognition are uniquely human. For example, many animals hide food for later consumption (a behaviour known as caching) and I have used this as a paradigm to examine social cognition. My research reveals that caching Eurasian jays may understand that another jay can eavesdrop to acquire information about the location of caches to steal. My collaborators and I have also shown that male jays take into account what their mates have just eaten when deciding what food to share with them. This suggests that the male jay understands changes in his mate’s desire for particular foods, an aspect of social cognition previously assumed to be uniquely human. Together, these results demonstrate that jays have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of social interactions.

2) The function and evolution of intelligence

The ecological significance and evolution of cognition can only be understood by studying animals in the wild. At ZEALANDIA sanctuary in Wellington I have established unique systems for studying cognition in wild toutouwai (North Island robins) and kākā. I have developed techniques for measuring cognitive performance and demonstrated that there are consistent individual differences in the cognitive abilities of wild birds. Furthermore, our recent work suggests that cognitive ability may influence reproductive behaviour and fitness in toutouwai.

Looking ahead, this research could have some novel conservation applications for urban sanctuary wildlife. By finding out how birds learn about and interact with their environment, I hope to develop strategies for helping vulnerable species to learn to recognise and avoid potential threats that they may encounter once they move outside the protection of Zealandia’s fence.


Shaw RC, MacKinlay RD, Clayton NS & Burns KC (2019). Memory performance influences male reproductive success in the wild. Current Biology 29, 1498 - 1502.e3

Loepelt J, Shaw RC, Burns KC (2016). Can you teach an old parrot new tricks? Cognitive development in wild kaka (Nestor meridionalis). Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 283

Shaw RC, Boogert NJ, Clayton NS & Burns KC (2015). Wild psychometrics: evidence for “general” cognitive performance in wild New Zealand robins Petroica longipes.Animal Behaviour, 109, 101-111.

Ostojić L, Shaw RC, Cheke LG & Clayton NS (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays. PNAS, 110, 4123–4128.

Shaw RC & Clayton NS (2013). Careful cachers and prying pilferers: Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) limit auditory information available to competitors.Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 280, 20122238.

A full list of my publications is available on Google Scholar

Teaching in 2020