Centre for Behaviour and Evolution

Staff Profile

Dr John Skelhorn

Lecturer in Animal Cognition



I studied Zoology at the University of Nottingham, and then went on to do a PhD on animal cognition at Newcastle University. After two post-doctoral positions and a Lloyds Tercentenary Foundation Fellowship, I took up a lectureship in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter. I then returned to Newcastle in 2013 as a Lecturer in Animal Cognition. In 2012 I was given the Christopher Barnard Award for Outstanding Contributions by a New Investigator by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


My Research

The overarching theme of my research is how the sensory and cognitive processes of predators influence the evolution of their prey. My main questions are: how do predators decide what to eat when faced with a number of different prey types? What is the adaptive value of this behaviour? And how does this behaviour influence the evolution of prey defences? My work can be divided into two main areas: how predaor psychology influences the evolution of (1) defended prey; and (2) masquerading prey.

Predator psychology and the evolution of defended prey
Many toxic prey species advertise their chemical defences to potential predators using conspicuous aposematic colouration. My work investigates how predator psychology influences the evolution of preys’ chemical defences and their chemical and visual signals. I take a holistic approach to avian cognition, using tightly controlled laboratory experiments to investigate how birds perceive both taste and toxicity, how defence chemicals influence aversion learning, and how educated birds use information about prey quality to make strategic-decisions about when to eat toxic prey.

Predator psychology and the evolution of masquerade
Masquerading prey appear to mimic the visual appearance of inanimate objects such as twigs, leaves, stones and bird droppings. My research in this area aims: to understand both the evolutionary function, and the evolutionary dynamics of masquerade; to demonstrate that prey show behavioural adaptations that enhance the efficacy of masquerade; and to understand predators’ decisions to attack masquerading prey in an optimal foraging context.