By Caitlin Kennedy
It’s a strange thought that for many months of the season, only a meter or so beneath your skis or snowboard lie a multitude of marmots lasting out the winter in the protection of their burrows. Now is approximately the middle of the big sleep (a misnomer that we’ll come to later), so we thought we’d plunge into this fascinating lifestyle choice that is actually very prevalent in the animal kingdom.
So what is hibernation? This deceptively simple question is actually incredibly controversial in the world of Ecology. You may well have heard that bears do not truly hibernate.
This is argued to be the case in certain scientific spheres because their body temperatures only drop a little in winter and it is still relatively easy to wake them from their state of reduced activity. In fact, female bears usually awaken to give birth and then return to their state of torpor, whilst her cubs nurse and wait for her to return to the land of the living. The general consensus these days is that the different forms of prolonged inactivity found in the animal kingdom exist on a spectrum and utilise similar physiological processes. For the purposes of this article, hibernation is a state of energy conservation which features reduced metabolic activity. Some animals have to regularly emerge from their state of rest to eat, to poo or to check for danger. Others are able to stay submerged in a coma-like state for upwards of 11 months, such as the pygmy possum which holds the record for longest hibernation at 367 days.