SciSun: Set your alarm clock to ‘Salmon’   Leave a comment

This past week marked the first day of Autumn, so it’s time for wildlife to start preparing for winter. They don’t usually have calendars to tell them what week it is, they just know. For some, this means eating, gathering and storing as much food as possible while there’s still food to be found; for others, the season calls for migrating to climates that are warmer and areas where foods more plentiful (for a human, that’s usually a trip to Florida or Hawaii); the fur on some animals grows long and thick, and they just tough it out all winter. But for others, the coming of winter means hibernation, an extended period when they literally sleep the winter away. Well, more-or-less.

While most of us think of hibernation as going into a deep sleep for months at a time, not waking up to eat or drink or even go to the bathroom – let alone venturing outside to see what’s going on – actually there are different types of hibernation. ‘True’ hibernation is the deep sleep often associated with this ‘long winters nap’; in this condition, breathing and heart rate drop to just a fraction of a more active animal; body temperature falls to half or lower; and some normal processes, like hair growth, slow or stop. Some true hibernators are bats, marmots and other squirrels, and where there’s cold weather some insects, snakes, frogs, and even alligators and the common garden snail hibernate, often by burying themselves in the ground. But even these heavy sleepers wake from time to time to eat a snack and use the bathroom, usually in a specified area in the burrow or den; then they go back to sleep for another week or so.

While many of us think the real deep-sleepers are bears, warm and comfy in their caves while freezing weather storms outside, bears are not ‘true’ hibernators but more of a light sleeper, relatively easily awakened even in the deepest winter and often getting up to eat, drink, eliminate waste and if it’s a particularly nice day, move around in its den or even venture outside. While the bear might be drowsy and not as alert as he would be in the peak of summer (see how you feel after sleeping a few weeks!), he’s sharp enough to pull down a tree for a few apples or dig out some roots. All this is important to know if you decide to go sledding one day and there’s a bear in your path. It’s never a good idea to get in the way of a sleepy bear.

“I don't see any fish at all and I thought the weather report was 'party cloudy with chance of salmon'.  Maybe that  was 'chance of sunshine'.”

“I don’t see any fish at all and I thought the weather report was ‘party cloudy with chance of salmon’. Maybe that was ‘chance of sunshine’.”


Skunks, opossum and racoons are other species that often take long naps during the winter, unless they find something better to do. In areas where food becomes scarce early in Autumn, these animals dig a burrow or seek out an empty log for their winter home of the next six to seven months. Seldom, if ever, do modern bears actually live in caves and you’re more likely to find a colony of bats that a family of bears. (Tens of thousands of years ago, the Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus), an animal larger than almost any bear today, obviously did live in caves, but those bears became extinct approximately 30,000 years ago. For modern bears, cave-living is so yesterday). In areas where food can be found through the Fall and into winter, light-sleepers eat as long, as often, and as much as they can until it seems a better idea to find a warm, safe place to take a nap than to keep looking for food. These animals only ‘hibernate’ when the weather is too harsh to be outside exploring, and in areas where food is plentiful some don’t hibernate at all, but might just take naps of a few days.

While there are many theories why animals hibernate, and what causes hibernation – including amount of daylight; temperature; food; and genetic behavior, so far there’s been no ‘key’ found that answers the hibernation question. Interestingly, if a blood sample is taken from a hibernating squirrel in the winter; and then placed into a different squirrel in the Spring; the second squirrel will start exhibiting hibernation behavior! But if a groundhog is provided with plenty of food and warm temperatures and sunlight, he will all but forget about hibernation and remain active while others of his species will be fast asleep. Which just confuses scientists, who always want to find the answer to puzzling questions; and is inconvenient for the squirrels and groundhogs and other animals that are woken up when they should be asleep and left to sleep when they’d like to be active. All in all, they’d just rather be left alone.

In the Spring when temperatures warm and the sun is high in the sky all hibernators awake, emerge from their burrows and dens and logs, and although hungry (and probably a little sore after laying down for so long), for the next few weeks usually only drink water and eat a few light snacks while their bodies adjust to their usual summer lifestyle.

But if you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of hibernation (and give yourself an excuse for a nap), the next time you eat a big meal and feel sleepy afterward, just say you need to hibernate.


Michonne Says: Hi-bear-nation is when we sleep during the cold time? That’s a big word and I don’t know why it’s only about bears when marmots sleep too. But maybe the bears would get mad if it wasn’t named for them. Bears can be pretty pushy sometimes if they don’t get their way. And it’s usually best to let them have their way.

Posted September 28, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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