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Function Of Sleep

Ecological Accounts
Observations of animals in their environment…

The Ecological Perspective

• Energy Conservation (Webb, 1982)
Warm-blooded animals need to use up a lot of energy to maintain a
constant body temp. A problem for small animals with a high
metabolic rate (chemical processes taking place in the body).
Animals with a high metabolic rate use much more energy.

However… Sleep provides a period of enforced inactivity (using less

energy) a means of conserving energy, much like hibernation
(Webb, 1982) – Hibernation Theory.

Sleep varies according to animal size and therefore metabolic rate.

Amount of sleep is also changed by other factors: foraging
(looking for food) and predator avoidance.
The Ecological Perspective
• Foraging (gathering food)
Herbivores spend their time eating plants which are poor in
nutrients therefore spend a lot of time eating = less time
Carnivores eat food that are high in nutrients therefore don’t
need to eat continuously = afford to rest, conserving

• Predator Avoidance (Meddis, 1975)

Prey species must remain alert to avoid predator (reducing
sleep). Meddis (1975) suggested that sleep help prey to
stay out of harms way during parts of the day they are most
vulnerable. For most animals this means sleeping during
the hours of darkness however there are animals which
have evolved to be nocturnal.
According to Meddis, sleep may just ensure animals stay still
when they have nothing better to do with their time.
• Evolution of NREM and REM Sleep
- The brain uses a lot of energy, though energy consumption
of the brain drops only in NREM sleep. During REM sleep
the brain uses valuable energy since it is relatively active.
Conclude that only NREM sleep has evolved for energy
conservation. Supported by Allison & Cicchetti (1976)
- Animals that are more primitive (reptiles) have only NREM
sleep. REM sleep appears to have evolved many years
ago in birds and mammals. It may that REM sleep is
adaptive only for animals with larger brains.
- They have a need to ‘exercise’ (use) their neural circuits
and this apparently is done better in the absence of
sensory inputs (i.e. when a animal is in a quiet, dark
- NREM sleep may have evolved first for energy
conversation and REM sleep evolved later to maintain
brain activity. Suggesting that the energy view is likely to
apply only to NREM sleep.
• But does sleep actually conserve energy?
- An animal doesn’t conserve much energy than when resting
(sleep reduces energy rates by 5-10%) Suggesting rest would
be as adaptive as sleep for conserving energy. The risks
associated with sleeping (i.e. loss of consciousness) would
seem to outweigh borderline advantage of ‘energy
conservation’. Basically, this means that the ‘energy
conservation’ explanation (Webb) is not sufficient to explain the
function of sleep.

- In addition the unilateral (one sided/one eye) sleeping habits of

marine mammals/birds indicate that sleep function can be
satisfied while partially active. Suggesting that energy
conservation can’t be a key adaptive feature of sleep.
• Does sleep assist predator avoidance?
- Some animals (i.e. ducks) solve the alertness problem through
unilateral sleep, so why hasn’t this evolved in more prey
species? We could ask why animals so not simply rest rather
losing consciousness.

- Answer: It may be that loss of consciousness ensures greater

stillness than rest alone. Unilateral sleep may not be more
common because the evolutionary advantages may not be great
Question Time
1. What is described as the Hibernation Theory (Webb,

3. What factors also modify amount of sleep?

5. What does Meddis (1975) suggest about predator


7. What type of sleep has evolved to converse energy?

9. What is meant by unilateral sleep?

11. Why hasn’t unilateral sleep evolved in more prey

Research Studies
• Sleep length and energy conservation
Zepelin & Rechtschaffen (1974) – studied relationship between
sleep length and metabolic rate rate across 53 species

Found a negative correlation between body size and total sleep

time, indicating that animals with higher metabolic rates sleep
for longer. Small animals spend more hours a day asleep while
larger animals sleep relatively little (i.e. elephants sleep for
about 4hrs a day)

• Sleep length and predator avoidance

Allison & Cicchetti (1975) – studied relationship between sleep in
animals and the degree of danger experienced (in a lab) and
found in 39 species amount of sleep in an animal negatively
correlated with the amount of danger experienced. Basically, the
greater the environmental danger, the less time an animal spent
sleeping per day.
Research Studies
• Unilateral Sleep
Dolphins need to swim to the surface to take a breath. If they fell
into a deep sleep, they would drown.
Evolution solution: only one half of the dolphins brain is in NREM
sleep at a time, the other half staying awake. Two hemispheres
of the brain swap every 2-3 hrs – Mukhametov, 1987

Birds also display unilateral sleep.

Rattenborg et al (1999) – showed birds on the end of a row who
were watching out for predators were more likely to sleep with
one eye opened than the birds in the middle.
Recordings of brain activity in sleeping mallard ducks showed the
brain hemisphere corresponding to the open eye is awaken
while the one for the closed eye is in deep sleep.
Research Studies - Evaluation
• Sleep length and energy conservation
- The relationship that animal size is related to time spent
sleeping isn’t true in all species. Sloth's are very large and slow
so they shouldn’t need much sleep however they sleep 20hrs a

• Sleep length and predator avoidance

- Animals don’t always spend less time sleeping when
environmental dangers are high. Rabbits were found to sleep as
much as moles, but rabbits had very high danger ratings and
moles had very low ratings

• Researchers are finding things out all the time

- Behaviour of animals has yet to be accurately recorded. It was
only recently that platypus sleep habits were carefully recorded
and found it does have REM sleep (being a rather primitive
mammal) – Siegel et al. 1998
Question Time
1. What did Zepelin & Rechtschaffen find?

3. Who found that the greater the environmental danger,

the less time an animal spent sleeping per day?

5. What was the evolution solution for the dolphin

problem? (if they fell into deep sleep = drown)

7. Give a example why the relationship between size and

time spent sleeping isn’t always true?

9. What did Siegel et al. 1998 find?