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January 24, 2017
WINTERTIME MEANS LONG, dark nights and cold temperatures that can make you want to hole up in your house under the covers until it’s over. Though many animals hibernate – including bats, snakes and bees – the most famous winter nappers are bears. These big guys capture our imaginations this time of year because they do what we humans can only dream about: They power down for a good sleep and get to skip winter entirely.
Bear hibernation – and animal hibernation in general – is about much more than just sleeping. The black bear hibernation period can be as long as seven to seven and a half months – that’s more than half the year. (Talk about sleeping your life away!)
What allows bears to stay asleep for so long is more than just fatigue. Hibernation is a major change in the bear’s metabolism that allows it to stay in one spot for weeks on end. With its body basically in Nature’s version of a power save mode, the bear slows all of its systems down in order to use as little energy as possible. That means no eating or drinking, no getting up to stretch – and no bathroom breaks.
Though smaller animals like chipmunks have short hibernation cycles and get up every few days for a stretch and a trip to the loo, bears are the masters of the big sleep, staying put through all the worst parts of winter.
Like most animals, hibernation in bears is triggered by colder temperatures and scarce food sources. That’s why bears eat so much all summer – they need to put on lots of weight that their bodies will very slowly burn to stay alive throughout the winter. When temperatures warm up in the spring – look out! A ravenous bear will be looking for a king-size breakfast.
No matter how much you’d like to sleep through winter, human hibernation – alas! – isn’t possible. Unlike those clever bears, you’ll never be able to slow your metabolism down enough to stop eating for more than a few days at a time without some serious consequences. Not to mention the fact that you’ll definitely need to go to the bathroom during the winter. (Be thankful for indoor plumbing, at least!)
Some animals like hedgehogs and dormice experience a cycle known as torpor instead: They slow down for a shorter period in response to only the coldest temperatures. If you prefer to hole up during a blizzard and freezing temperatures, you’ve got a lot in common with these animals!
Most humans who feel extra sleepy during the winter months are responding to changes in the amount of daylight rather than the temperature, though. Short winter days can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a period of depression associated with changes in your circadian rhythms. When all those additional hours of darkness trigger you to go to bed early and stay up late, it can disrupt your sleeping habits and leave you feeling wiped out.
The cure for your intense desire to live like a bear this winter? Spring! Luckily, the daylight comes back long before the flowers bloom again. You won’t have to wait as long as you think to get your energy back, and you’ll be bounding along enjoying life long before the bears wake up this season.