If you live in a place with harsh winters, you may have thought how nice it would be to curl up and “sleep” through the winter like a Yellowstone bear! While scientists are still unraveling some mysteries surrounding hibernation, they have made many discoveries that offer fascinating insights into the lives of these animals. Hibernation may even hold the key to developing life-saving medical interventions and achieving long-distance space travel.
And remember – one of the best ways to protect Yellowstone’s bears is to help sponsor a bear box.
Here are some facts that may surprise you about bear hibernation.
1. No Weight Watchers Program for Bears!
In the autumn, Yellowstone bears enter a period of excessive eating, sort of like humans at Thanksgiving, but lasting several weeks. During this fall feeding frenzy, grizzlies can eat up to 20,000 calories—and put on up to three pounds of weight—each day. Bears need to put on a lot of weight fast, as they’ll survive entirely off their fat stores during hibernation.
2. Will There Be Baby Bears?
During the summer mating season, fertilized eggs will remain in a female bear’s womb but do not implant until weeks or months later. This helps Mama Bear to conserve energy until hibernation, and may be a way to control the population if food is scarce.
If she has not accumulated enough fat by the time she settles into her den, the egg will spontaneously abort.
3. Bears Create Their Own Heat-Efficient Hideaways
Yellowstone bears typically dig their dens on slopes at high elevation. The den entrance is just large enough for the bear to squeeze through so it will cover quickly with insulating snow. The chamber is dug only slightly larger than the bear’s body to allow for maximum heat retention.
4. Studying Bear Hibernation Could Lead to Medical Breakthroughs
Rapidly gaining weight and then lying still for several months is not generally considered a recipe for fitness, yet most bears remain healthy during hibernation. Biologists are studying hibernation in the hopes of preventing osteoporosis and Type II diabetes, helping those suffering from kidney failure, and prolonging the viability of human organs for transplant.
5. Bears May Help Send Humans to Mars—Seriously!
We have heard since childhood that bears “sleep” through the winter, but in fact they are awake and in a reduced metabolic state. Yellowstone bears go months without performing the usual bodily functions, and their breathing and heart rates slow significantly. This has inspired scientists to explore putting astronauts into “hibernation” for long space voyages to Mars or beyond!
The presence of bears is one of the reasons Yellowstone is so special. But with this distinction comes great responsibility.
- National Park Service: Denning and Hibernation Behavior
- National Wildlife Federation: Hibernation – The Big Sleep
- The Guardian: The Big Sleep
- Christian Science Monitor: What Hibernating Bears Can Tell Us About Space Travel
- Nova: Bear Essentials of Hibernation
- Scientific American: 10 Lessons Medicine Can Learn from Bears
By Christine Gianas Weinheimer