Just like disturbances wake you up, they wake up the animal kingdom — often with dire results.
Hibernation, simply, is a state of inactivity in animals. It is typically characterized by a drop in metabolic activity—a physical slowing of the body—in addition to lower body temperature and slower breathing.
Indeed, hibernation is a sleep deeper than most humans could imagine, but it is not impervious to interruption. Increasingly, changes brought into nature by the modern world are unsettling hibernating animals during a time of the year when they are most vulnerable.
One animal that truly hibernates is the European hedgehog. Though hibernation periods among animals vary from a few days to a few weeks, most settle down during winter, when normal food supplies are limited.
To survive this long period of inactivity, animals must spend the rest of the year building fat reserves that can supply energy during hibernation.
Some research has shown that changes in snowfall, spring precipitation, and ambient temperatures—brought on by climate change—can have an impact on the behavior of hibernating animals.
The danger, researchers have said, is that such environmental changes will cause animals to rise from hibernation before sufficient snow has melted, leaving them stranded in a food-less habitat in an already calorie-depleted condition.
Interestingly, the animal most famous for hibernation, the bear, doesn’t truly hibernate. Instead, it enters a “winter sleep” state characterized by only a slightly slowed metabolism and stable body temperature.
Until 2004, it was thought that no primates or tropical mammals hibernated. The discovery of the fat-tailed lemur in June of that year changed these assumptions. Research showed that this lemur spends up to seven months of the year hibernating in tree holes.
Madagascar’s winters are warm and the temperatures in a hibernating lemur’s tree hole can vary widely over its seven month span. Research showed that not only is hibernation not dependent on low ambient temperatures, but also that reduced metabolism could occur in animals with a high body temperature.
Image: Frank.Vassen / Flickr
Most species of bats hibernate—or at least enter a state of torpor—during the winter months. Though some rouse when warm weather causes insects to spawn, many spend six months or more in a state of complete hibernation.
Hibernating bats in North America are currently under siege by a deadly plague.”White Nose Syndrome” is caused by a fungal infection and once a cave is infected, it spreads rapidly through the sleeping population.
It is not completely clear by what mechanism the fungus causes bats to die, but many believe it agitates hibernating individuals causing them to rouse from their sleep and go searching for food.
The bats then burn the small amount of stored fat they have reserved and quickly starve to death.
Western Diamondback Snake
It is not just mammals that hibernate. Western diamondback rattlesnakes have been known to enter states of hibernation in the summer, after finding cool caves to rest in.This process is sometimes referred to as estivation, or “summer hibernation.”
One species of bird, the common poorwill, hibernates in the winter instead of migrating to warmer climates.
Image: Charles & Clint / Flickr
Some species, like the hazel dormouse, both hibernate and estivate, or enter a similar stage of dormancy, depending on the weather and other conditions. This means that in any given year, a dormouse can spend most of the time sleeping.Its winter nest, seen here, is often made beneath leaf liter on the forest floor.
Climate change and disease are not the only things interrupting animal hibernation. Human disturbances, too can cause problems. Noise and vibrations from passing vehicles and light from towns and cities are increasingly common threats.
Image: Alexeames / Wikimedia Commons
Even insects, notably ladybugs, spend some period of the winter dormant in a state of hibernation. After spending the summer and fall gorging on aphids and pollen, ladybugs cluster in buildings, under logs, or under piles of leaves to wait out the coldest months.
Image: *clairity* / Flickr