BI 644 - Neuroethology

Neuroethology is the study of neural systems in organisms performing natural behaviors. Neural systems are governed by general principles, but the best way to uncover these principles often comes down to the art of choosing the right organism to study. Songbirds are champions of vocal learning, rodents are champions of spatial navigation, owls are champions of binaural hearing, and bats are champions at auditory sensory-motor integration. Each of these example organisms provides an opportunity to examine general questions about neural systems in a uniquely tractable manner.

This course begins by examining the historical roots of ethology. Early ethologists recognized that studies of animal behavior in artificial settings would often fail to uncover essential principles of their behavior. In a series of now famous experiments, the founders of ethology revealed simple principles underlying various natural behaviors in a wide range of species. Following this introduction, we step back to examine the challenges faced by neural systems in a complex world. These challenges include imperfect sensors, noisy environments, and many degrees of freedom in motor control. We examine in depth a few animal models that have provided unique insights into general principles of neural systems, from honey bees to bats, mice and songbirds. Interspersed throughout the course, visiting lectures will be given by researchers from the Boston area. A three hour weekly laboratory examines neural recordings in singing birds.