Neuroethology is a branch of neuroscience that explores the neural mechanisms of naturally occurring animal behaviour. This approach takes advantage of the variety of behaviours and nervous systems found among different species to understand how evolution shaped each organism to its environmental niche, and to reveal general principles of the structure and function of the nervous system.

Keywords: neuroscience; animal behaviour; ethology; evolution

Figure 1.

Sound localization by barn owls. The barn owl can accurately localize sounds even in complete darkness. A sound‐based representation is found in the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus. There, cells are tuned to sounds that occur in particular locations in space, as depicted by the rectangles shown in front of the owl. The cells are arranged in the external nucleus according to their tuning.

Figure 2.

Anatomy of Aplysia. When the mantle shelf is touched, the gill reflexively withdraws. This reflex is modified by different forms of learning, which entail changes in the synapses between the sensory neurons (SN) receiving the touch to the mantle shelf and the motor neurons (MN) that produce the gill withdrawal.

Figure 3.

Locust flight is an example of a rhythmic behaviour that is controlled by a central pattern generator.

Figure 4.

The extremely sensitive touch organ of a star‐nosed mole. A photograph shows that the star consists of 11 appendages surrounding each nostril; these are numbered on one side. The right panel shows a preparation of brain tissue from the cortex of the mole that has been stained for cytochrome oxidase; this reveals a star pattern within the brain. The neurons are segregated according to their sensitivity to touch stimuli delivered to the different appendages; for example, the cells responding when the 1st appendage is touched all lie in the area marked 1, the cells responding when the 2nd appendage is touched lie in the area marked 2, and so on. Note that the 11th appendage takes the most space.

Figure 5.

Vocal learning in songbirds. Song learning has been documented in many songbird species, including various sparrows, zebra finches and canaries. The diagram shows the song system, which is a set of specialized brain regions found uniquely in birds that learn to sing. These brain areas contain the neural substrates for song learning and production.


Further Reading

Carew TJ (2000) Behavioral Neurobiology: The Cellular Organization of Natural Behavior. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Catania KC (2002) The nose takes a starring role: the star‐nosed mole has what is very likely the world's fastest and most fantastic nose. Scientific American 287(1): 54–56.

Doupe AJ and Kuhl PK (1999) Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms. Annual Review of Neuroscience 22: 567–631.

Kandel ER (2001) The molecular biology of memory storage: a dialogue between genes and synapses. Science 294: 1030–1038.

Knudsen EI (2002) Instructed learning in the auditory localization pathway of the barn owl. Nature 417(6886): 322–328.

Konishi M (1993) Listening with two ears. Scientific American 268(4): 66–73.

Lorenz K (1991) King Solomon's Ring: New Light on Animal Ways. New York: Penguin.

Marder E and Bucher D (2001) Central pattern generators and the control of rhythmic movements. Current Biology 11(23): 986–996.

Tinbergen N (1989) The Herring Gull's World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds. New York: Lyons and Burford.

Zeigler HP and Marler P (2004) Behavioral Neurobiology of Bird Song: 1016 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. New York: NYAS.

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How to Cite close
Solis, Michele M, and Perkel, David J(Jan 2006) Neuroethology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0003380]