Exploring Behavioral Neurobiology

Professor Günther K.H. Zupanc, Chair of Northeastern’s Department of Biology, specializes in behavioral, developmental, and comparative neurobiology. This summer, a new edition of his textbook Behavioral Neurobiology: An Integrative Approach was published by Oxford University Press. Over the past few years, this book has emerged as the most frequently adopted text in neuroethology worldwide.  Here, Zupanc discusses his research in this field, and the creative process behind this work.

What is neuroethology, and why is it important to study?
Neuroethology is the biological discipline that combines the study of animal behavior with neurobiology. It aims at understanding how the central nervous system translates biologically relevant stimuli into the natural behavior of an animal.

Neuroethological research has tremendously advanced our knowledge of how the brain controls behavior. We have learned general principles of sensory processing and motor control, and how these processes integrate to produce a specific behavior in response to a biological stimulus. By comparing animals from different taxonomic groups, we have made significant progress in understanding of how such processes developed over evolutionary times. In addition, neuroethology has inspired new developments in a number of areas relevant to human welfare and technology. For example, my own early work on brain plasticity and its relevance to behavioral plasticity has evolved into a series of new research projects that aim to explore how the potential for neural plasticity can be used to aid regeneration of the brain after injury.

An important technological development that has been inspired by neuroethological research involves the design of autonomous robots. By adopting the design principles of the brains of animals, engineers have endowed robots with a degree of flexibility and robustness similar to that evolved in animals over millions of years in the face of environmental contingencies. Such robots will become increasingly important for performing certain tasks in complex environments that are not accessible to humans but require autonomous decision making. This includes, for example, rescue operations after earthquakes or operations in the deep sea.

What initially drew you to the field of neuroethology?
I have been interested in animal behavior since my childhood, and while still at high school, I developed a strong interest in brain research. I was able to combine these two interests after I started my PhD research in the laboratory of Walter Heiligenberg, a world leader in the field of neuroethology, at the University of California, San Diego.

During my thesis research, I studied how the brain accommodates seasonal changes in behavior. As a model system, I used a weakly electric fish from South America. In these fish, sexual maturation is triggered by the tropical rainy season, and certain behaviors, particularly those related to courtship and aggression, are exhibited only during the breeding season. In the course of my thesis research, I succeeded in demonstrating that, in concert with the behavioral changes, nerve cells in specific areas of the brain that control these behavioral patterns undergo dramatic alterations in their morphology. This has suggested that the structural plasticity of specific brain areas mediates the observed behavioral plasticity. This research triggered my life-long interest in brain plasticity, and in the question of how this phenomenon relates to behavioral plasticity.

What inspired you to write Behavioral Neurobiology?
The idea to write this textbook arose in the late 1990s. At that time, there was an enormous need to develop undergraduate courses on neuroethology, and I had the opportunity to design and teach such courses. These courses were extremely popular among students from a variety of majors, ranging from biology to neurosciences and psychology. On numerous occasions, students asked me about a suitable textbook, but unfortunately at that time no such text was available at the undergraduate level. Coincidently, at the same time Oxford University Press, one of the world’s leading academic publisher, asked me whether I would be interested in writing a textbook on neuroethology. These events finally led to the publication of this book.

What is special about writing a textbook?
I have found the writing of textbooks not only to be one of the most challenging activities of a scholar, but also one of the most rewarding. Textbook writing requires experience in three areas — the scientific subject, the academic teaching, and the writing in a way that enthuses students. Like many of my colleagues, I deeply enjoy both research and teaching. In addition, I was privileged to have worked as a journalist before I entered college. At that time, I wrote popular science articles for newspapers and magazines, and I received the award of Germany’s best young science reporter. Through my journalistic work, I learned how to address a broad audience using a captivating style of writing. As a result of this experience and while still at college, I published my first book, Fish and Their Behavior. This popular account of the behavior of fishes became a scientific bestseller, with nearly 50,000 copies sold worldwide. Fish and Their Behavior set the stage for all the following books I have written.

Did your journalistic experience come into play?
It definitely did. Neuroethological research draws its approaches from both the study of animal behavior and various disciplines within neurobiology, such as neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and neurogenetics. An understanding of many of the typical problems in neuroethology requires comprehensive knowledge not only in one discipline, but in several. This poses a major challenge to students entering the field of neuroethology. A textbook on neuroethology must, therefore, include an introduction to the relevant approaches and concepts not only of neuroethology, but also of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, cell biology, and other disciplines. Moreover, I consider it to be important that students learn about the historical development of a discipline. This is the best way that the students understand how we have arrived at the current state of knowledge, and this approach helps them to accept that this knowledge is only a transient phenomenon. I have, therefore, devoted an entire chapter to the history of neuroethology.

The major concepts of neuroethology are presented by an in-depth discussion of major case studies in neuroethology. Such case studies include: echolocation in bats, escape swimming in toad tadpoles, decision-making in leeches, feature detection in toads, directional localization of sound and formation of acoustic maps in barn owls, sensorimotor integration in weakly electric fish, neuromodulation in white-footed mice and decapod crustaceans, genetics of time keeping in fruit flies, navigation in birds, homing in salmon and sea turtles, communication in crickets, and learning and memory in sea slugs. These examples illustrate the approaches scientists use to investigate the various aspects of neuroethological research — an aspect that is often more important than detailed knowledge of every single result of a study. Finally, I have added biographic sketches of prominent scientists who have made major contributions to the development of neuroethology. I hope that this approach to writing the textbook will leave the reader with the same degree of enthusiasm for neuroethology that I have experienced throughout my life.

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