Monday, December 8, 2014

The Truth Behind Those Sleeping Bears (A Guest Post)

By Tabitha Starjnski-Schneider

Name some animals that hibernate.

Was the first one mentioned a bear? That’s understandable…you were probably told that bears go to sleep shortly before winter, stay asleep the entire winter, and wake up in early spring.

What if I told you that your teachers lied to you, and that bears don’t actually hibernate?! Not a true hibernation, at least.

For an animal to be considered a true hibernator, it actually needs to stay in a sleep state for months at a time (like during an entire season), but also lower its body temperature far below where most other animals barely survive. Such an animal thus hibernates by lowering its metabolism, dropping its body temperature, and passing, most commonly, much of the winter in this Rip Van Winkle state. The many challenges of enduring a long and strenuous season such as winter, while "sleeping" it away, are complicated, but here we talk about just a couple.

Something your teacher may have also told you was that bears are mammals, and therefore are "warm-blooded". That seems a little silly; all animals with blood are going to have warm blood. Bears are actually called endothermic, meaning they don’t have to rely on warming or cooling their bodies by outside forces such as the sun. While undergoing this sleep-state, bears possess internal and external temperature control. These animals slightly lower their heart rate and body temperature internally and minimize their external movements in an effort to save energy and conserve heat. Of course these periods of reduced heart rate, temperature and inactivity don’t actually last all winter, as with true hibernation, but only a few weeks at a time. This overall ability and state is called torpor, not true hibernation. And although there is debate over the definitions of each, most researchers believe there is enough of a difference to categorize them separately (like cat naps versus comas).

One of the reasons for taking these naps is as basic as why we grocery shop. When the environment changes in such a way that doesn’t suit an animal (i.e. an empty fridge), they can better survive by conserving energy and going inactive until food returns. Before napping however, each adult bear will begin to dig a den, hollow out a tree trunk, and/or find a cave to prepare for winter. Once tucked away in their little beds, they use these dens like a Thermos, retaining as much of their body heat as possible. For the most part, these giants go to sleep for a few weeks at a time, wake up to warm their bodies some, then fall back asleep. This occurs over the course of a winter season until spring arrives and the bear can reemerge into the re-warmed world outside.

There is another, more important reason why these bears slumber though. After breeding in spring/summer, these mammals begin their fall-time buffet, eating foods high in carbohydrates and fat to gain as much weight as possible. Why you ask? So that the mothers gain enough fat and energy to develop, birth, and feed their young while in the winter hideaways. Ever see the videos of polar bears emerging with their cubs from a snowy fortress in the side of a hill?


Now how could they ever give birth if they were sleeping the whole time? It’s the same with black bears and grizzly bears, for that matter.

It all sounds pretty cool right? These mama bears should be given a medal for their dedication. And the next time someone refers to bears hibernating, you can assuredly respond that they actually enter a state of torpor, or winter-long cat naps.

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