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Unit information: Brains, Behaviour and Evolution in 2020/21

Unit name Brains, Behaviour and Evolution
Unit code BIOL20019
Credit points 10
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2C (weeks 13 - 18)
Unit director Professor. Roberts
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences


The field of neuroethology takes a comparative and evolutionary approach to the fundamental link between brains and animal behaviour. Our aims are:

  • To teach fundamental concepts about how neural circuits work.
  • To examine our current understanding of how sensory information is processed and results in complex behaviour and decision making.
  • To describe current research that uses modern interdisciplinary research techniques, for example, transgenics and two-photon imaging, optogenetics, electrophysiology, block face electron microscopy, tracking and AI based tracking and X-ray 3-D imaging.
  • To find out how the brains of animals compare.
  • To understand the differences between the brains of different animals.
  • To understand how brain functions have specialised through the process of evolution.
  • To understand complex cognitive abilities such as navigation.

Throughout the course we will emphasize how technological innovations and advances have driven the development of the field over recent years.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. Explain the basic operation of simple neuronal circuits;
  2. Describe the primary structures in the central nervous systems of a variety of species that process sensory information;
  3. Describe a range of recent advances in our knowledge of multiple-sensory inputs and the way they determine behaviour;
  4. Explain how sensory, morphological, physiological and behavioural adaptations have evolved through natural selection;
  5. Contrast alternative models of brain evolution;
  6. Critically discuss the relationship between brain size, structure and cognition;
  7. Read, understand and evaluate scientific papers on evolutionary neuroethology;
  8. Demonstrate understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of the subject areas described in the course;
  9. Understand and employ the principles of experimental design, hypothesis testing and statistical analysis of neuroethology data.

Teaching details

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; practical exercises and independent study.

Assessment Details

Coursework (40%) plus summative written assessment (60%) with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.

Reading and References


The lectures will mainly be developed and supported from the primary research literature. It will be useful for students to refer to the following core reference texts for information on general principles.

Simmons, P., & Young, D. 2010. Nerve cells and animal behaviour. Cambridge University Press.

Zupanc, G.K., 2010. Behavioral neurobiology: an integrative approach. Oxford University Press.


Logan, C. et al. 2018. Beyond brain size: uncovering the neural correlates of behavioral and cognitive specialization. Comp Cogn Behav Rev, 13.

Reader, S. et al. 2011. The evolution of primate general and cultural intelligence. Phil Trans R Soc B, 366(1567):1017-1027.

Katz, P. 2010. The nature of neuroethology. Brain Behav Evol, 76(3-4):163-164.

Healy, S., and Rowe, C. 2006. A critique of comparative studies of brain size. Proc Roy Soc B, 274(1609):453-464.

Barton, R. 2006. Primate brain evolution: integrating comparative, neurophysiological, and ethological data. Evol Anthropol 15(6):224-236.

Giurfa, M. 2003. Cognitive neuroethology: dissecting non-elemental learning in a honeybee brain. Curr Opin Neurobiol, 13(6), pp.726-735.

Hoyle, G. 1984. The scope of neuroethology. Behav Brain Sci, 7(3):367-381.

Further reading:

Warrant, EJ. 2017. The remarkable visual capacities of nocturnal insects: vision at the limits with small eyes and small brains. Phil Trans R Soc B 372: 20160063.

Farris, SM. 2013. Evolution of complex higher brain centers and behaviors: behavioral correlates of mushroom body elaboration in insects. Brain Behav Evol 82(1): 9-18.

Chittka, L., and Niven, J. 2009. Are bigger brains better? Current Biology 19(21): 995-1008.