Professor Russell David Gray


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Russell completed his PhD at the University of Auckland in 1990. He spent four years as a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Otago before returning to Auckland. He has served on the University of Auckland and Faculty of Science research committees and was on the Marsden Grant panel from 2002-2004.

Research | Current

Russell’s research has made significant contributions to the fields of linguistics, animal cognition, philosophy of biology and behavioural phylogenetics. He pioneered the application of computational evolutionary methods to questions about linguistic prehistory. This work has helped solve the 200 year-old debate on the origin of Indo-European languages, dubbed by Diamond and Bellwood (2003) as “the most recalcitrant problem in historical linguistics”.

More recently, he used sophisticated Bayesian phylogenetic methods to test hypotheses about the sequence and timing of the peopling of the Pacific. His work with Dr Gavin Hunt on New Caledonian crows has revealed that their remarkable tool manufacturing skills are the product of a lengthy learning period and are underpinned by brains with large associative regions and the ability to make causal inferences.

His research has attracted world-wide media attention including full page articles in The New York Times, Time and Le Monde and has featured on several international television documentaries. He has published over 100 journal articles and book chapters including seven papers in Nature and Science.

Media links


  • Hood Fellow
  • James Cook Fellow
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand


  • Deputy Director of School, Research

Committees/Professional groups/Services

  • Editorial Boards member of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Evolutionary Bioinformatics, and Frontiers (Comparative Psychology)

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

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  • Posth, C., Nägele K, Colleran, H., Valentin, F., Bedford, S., Kami, K. W., ... Walworth, M. (2018). Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania. Nature ecology & evolution, 2 (4), 731-740. 10.1038/s41559-018-0498-2
  • Greenhill, S. J., Wu, C.-H., Hua, X., Dunn, M., Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2017). Evolutionary dynamics of language systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114 (42), E8822-E8829. 10.1073/pnas.1700388114
  • Gray, R. D., & Watts, J. (2017). Cultural macroevolution matters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114 (30), 7846-7852. 10.1073/pnas.1620746114
  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532 (7598), 228-231. 10.1038/nature17159
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Quentin Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia
  • Botero, C. A., Gardner, B., Kirby, K. R., Bulbulia, J., Gavin, M. C., & Gray, R. D. (2014). The ecology of religious beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (47), 16784-16789. 10.1073/pnas.1408701111
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Joseph Bulbulia
  • Taylor, A. H., Miller, R., & Gray, R. D. (2012). New Caledonian crows reason about hidden causal agents. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 109 (40), 16389-16391. 10.1073/pnas.1208724109
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Alexander Taylor
  • Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., ... Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337 (6097), 957-960. 10.1126/science.1219669
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Quentin Atkinson, Remco Bouckaert, Alexei Drummond
  • Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2012). Tools from evolutionary biology shed new light on the diversification of languages. Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Contact details

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
Level 3, Room 303
New Zealand