Gavin completed his PhD at Massey University in 1997 on the ecology of the endangered kagu of New Caledonia. His doctoral research was mostly carried out in New Caledonia from 1991-1995. During that time he discovered that the endemic New Caledonian crow had complex tool manufacturing and using skills. He has been a Research Fellow at University of Auckland since 2000.
Gavin’s early research on New Caledonian crows provided the important first descriptive accounts of their tool manufacturing and using skills. He showed that their tools had three features new to tool use in nonhuman animals: a high degree of standardization, discrete tool types with definite imposition of form in tool shaping, and the use of hooks. He also showed lateralization in tool manufacture, which suggested a possible association between their tool skills and cognitive specialization.
His research collaboration with Professor Russell Gray at University of Auckland has suggested that New Caledonian crows are a potential nonhuman model for cumulative technological evolution. This is supported by the work of students and external collaborative efforts in several ways. First, the crows’ tool skills develop from a lengthy learning period where any transmission of tool information is likely to be vertical rather than horizontal. Second, the crows have large associative forebrain regions where working memory resides. Last, they can use cognition that is more complex than associative learning to solve physical problems.
Gavin’s research has attracted world-wide media attention including a full page article in The New York Times and international television documentaries. His initial discovery in 1996 has been highlighted as one of the most important of the 20th century in the book “Defining moments in science”. One reason for this is that complex tool manufacture and use in New Caledonian crows has shown that the evolution of sophisticated tool skills is not dependent on having a primate brain.