Here, we propose an original approach to explain one of the great unresolved questions in animal biology: what is the function of sleep? Existing ecological and neurological approaches to this question have become roadblocks to an answer. Ecologists typically treat sleep as a simple behavior, instead of a heterogeneous neurophysiological state, while neuroscientists generally fail to appreciate the critical insights offered by the consideration of ecology and evolutionary history. Redressing these shortfalls requires cross-disciplinary integration. By bringing together aspects of behavioral ecology, evolution, and conservation with neurophysiology, we can achieve a more comprehensive understanding of sleep, including its implications for adaptive waking behavior and fitness.