In 1951, Niko Tinbergen wrote, “...it is an urgent task of ethologists and neurophysiologists to join efforts in the training of 'etho-physiologists'”. Over the past half-century, neuroethology — the study of the neural basis of natural animal behaviour — has come a long way, but it is still something of a minority interest when compared with more 'mainstream' neurophysiology.
Nevertheless, neuroethology continues to provide important and intriguing insights into the neural structures and mechanisms that underlie natural behaviour. By studying species that have evolved to be specialists in one behavioural or sensory niche, neuroethologists can often shed light on more generalized principles of neuronal organization. For example, it is fascinating to know that a specific type of vasopressin receptor in the ventral forebrain mediates monogamous behaviour in male prairie voles — renowned for their faithfulness — but it will be even more interesting to see whether this system is involved in pair bonding in other species and even in humans (see highlight, page 596).
Most neuroscientists would agree, in principle, that it is important to consider the natural environment and behaviour of an animal when studying its nervous system. However, few studies really take these factors into account. On page 603, Ghazanfar and Santos review our understanding of the neural bases of natural primate behaviour. Many primates are highly social animals, and their brains have become specialized for social interactions. The authors hope that a more naturalistic, 'socioecologically sensible' neuroscience (in the words of Hauser), will allow us to understand the sensory and cognitive specializations that allow primates — including us — to form such complex societies.
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In this issue. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 595 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1492