Despite decades of intense study, the functions of sleep are still shrouded in mystery. The difficulty in understanding these functions can be at least partly attributed to the varied manifestations of sleep in different animals. Daily sleep duration can range from 4-20 hrs among mammals, and sleep can manifest throughout the brain, or it can alternate over time between cerebral hemispheres, depending on the species. Ecological factors are likely to have shaped these and other sleep behaviors during evolution by altering the properties of conserved arousal circuits in the brain. Nonetheless, core functions of sleep are likely to have arisen early and to have persisted to the present day in diverse organisms. This review will discuss the evolutionary forces that may be responsible for phylogenetic differences in sleep and the potential core functions that sleep fulfills.
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