"Neuro-" refers to neurons, and "ethology" is the study of animal behavior, so "neuroethology" is a branch of science that seeks to understand the neural basis of natural animal behavior.

Neuroethology is a relatively young science. Early brain anatomists like Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi revealed the intricate structure of brains and neurons, but it wasn't until the mid-20th century that researchers began to understand how neurons worked. Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley (studying the giant axon of squid) worked out how neurons generated action potentials, researchers' ability to record from active neurons increased dramatically. Nevertheless, being able to record neural activity from an actively behaving animal remains a major challenge in many cases.

Similarly, the scientific study of animal behavior also bloomed in the middle of the last century. In the 1930s and 1940s, European researchers like Niko Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz broke from the physiological and lab-based research traditions and stressed observing animals in their natural surroundings. But Tinbergen in particular realized the need to join diverse disciplines. In his classic book The Study of Instinct (1951), he wrote, “(I)t is an urgent task of ethologists and neurophysiologists to join efforts in the training of ‘etho-physiologists.’”

Neuroethology arguably became a distinct research field, as opposed to a few talented but somewhat isolated scientists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This success was driven by steady technical advances in recording from, and identifying, individual neurons. The International Society for Neuroethology formed in Kassel, Germany in 1981.


About the logo

Former ISN president Randolf Menzel commissioned the ISN logo in the late 1980s. He wrote, “The idea I had in mind when I talked to the graphics person was to illustrate in an abstract form the concentric shells of different levels in neural systems (from neurons to cognition), the input-output relationships with the external world, and the communication between such abstract subjects in the ‘universe.’”


About ISN

ISN is a scholarly society devoted to neuroethology: the study of how nervous systems generate natural behaviour in animals.

"The intent is to bring together neuroscientists and ethologists to advance our understanding of the neural basis of behaviour in animals, whether they be vertebrates or invertebrates. There is an intrinsic interest in explaining the huge range of behaviour shown by many different sorts of animals, but also in exploiting this diversity to illuminate basic principals of the organisation and design of brains in general. A continuing driving force is therefore the expectation that the study of neural mechanisms underlying a specific behaviour in a particular animal will elucidate mechanisms that are more generally applicable. Thus the specializations of owls for hearing have given insights into how sounds can be localized, the relative simplicity of the spinal cord of lampreys has told us much about the connectivity and pharmacology of neurons involved in generating locomotion, and the detailed analysis of small networks in crabs, leeches and insects continually reveal unexpected mechanisms that must be incorporated into our thinking about the functioning of more complex brains."

—from Preface, Nervous Systems and Behaviour, 1995, Georg Thieme Verlag: Stuttgart.