What hibernating bears can tell us about space travel
Scientists studying hibernation discovered that bears' super-slow metabolism may provide clues for treating trauma patients and preparing for spaceflight.
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The research team, led by Øivind Tøien, another scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology, set up pens in a remote area near the Institute and provided large boxes with straw padding for the bears to use as dens.Skip to next paragraph
A surgeon implanted a device in each bear to monitor body temperature, heartbeat, and muscle movement. The hibernation boxes were equipped with infrared video cameras, a pump to provide fresh air, and instruments to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the air – measures of metabolism.
The measurements were relayed via radio to a nearby trailer, where the information was recorded and from which Dr. Tøien could monitor his charges during daily visits to the site.
The team found that during hibernation, the bears' body temperatures dropped, but not nearly as low as smaller creatures, like the Arctic ground squirrel, whose body fluids freeze for brief periods.
The bears' lowered temperatures went through irregular cycles, the scientists found. Every day or two, the temperature would reach its lowest point, then recover, then fall again. The temperature increases coincided with bouts of shivering – as though the bears had internal thermostats that triggered a shiver-induced warm-up, once the body temperature fell to a critical threshold.
No other hibernating mammals have been observed showing such large cycles without waking up, the researchers say.
In addition, the bears breathed only once or twice each minute – in deep, rumbling snores separated by long periods of silence.
The bears weren't completely inactive; they got up once every day or two to change positions.
The surprises continued after hibernation ended. With many hibernating mammals, body processes return to normal almost as soon as hibernation ends.
The bears' metabolism rates took two to three weeks to return to normal, though their body temperatures recovered much more quickly.
Once the experiments ended, the researchers euthanized the bears so the team could begin the detailed analyses to help uncover the biochemical triggers for the changes the team had observed.
One final surprise: Though the scientists hadn't planned to study the effects of disturbing a hibernating bear – something hikers sheltering in a cave often wonder about – New Year's fireworks at the university provided an unexpected test.
"It woke him up," Dr. Barnes recalls. "He lifted his head, looked around, and went right back to sleep. So black bears, at least, are very resistant to disturbance" when they bed down for a long winter's nap.