Biology of the Big Sleep

Assumption College Undergraduate

biology-winter-hibernationAs of December 21, it is officially winter. For many, that means bundling up a little more and maybe curling up by that fireplace a little longer. For hundreds of species of animals, it means storing up on food and entering into a deep, sometimes 8-month long slumber.

“Hibernation is an extended period of deep sleep, or torpor, that allows animals to survive winter extremes,” according to the BBC, “Reducing metabolic rate and lowering body temperature enables survival through cold periods when food is scarce or has little energy value.”

Hibernating species build up large fat reserves before they begin hibernation. Some animals wake up in intervals to store up a little more food. There are several different forms of hibernation. Mammals, insects, birds and other classes of animal have species that participate in a form of hibernation.

Scientists have used different hibernation mechanisms to study how they could possibly serve humans with various problems. For example, researchers studying how brain cells of squirrels shut down almost completely during hibernation report they have been attempting to replicate this to prevent brain damage in stroke victims.

Research of black bears in Alaska, who hibernate up to seven months out of the year, may lead to the development of human-induced hibernation-like states in people, which could help in treatment of the very ill, or even “help astronauts survive long missions in deep space.” Similarly, research on lemur hibernation in Madagascar, could help further advancements in medicine, space travel and more.

Assumption College biology students can take in-depth bachelor’s degree courses like Animal Behavior, Ecology, Organic Evolution, Neuroscience and Human Biology in Health and Disease to get a better understanding of some of the current research and development regarding hibernation and what it means for humans.

Sometimes hibernation doesn’t sound so bad when it’s the middle of a February Polar Vortex.

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