A Wilder View: Studying Montana’s hibernating bears

Posted at 3:30 PM, Dec 23, 2020

MISSOULA — Following the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, many of us will welcome a chance to sleep in by the end of December.

Well, a few of Montana’s animals are a few steps ahead of us as they have entered hibernation. It's a curious phenomenon that's beginning to yield some of its secrets.

Bears have an enormous appetite. They will eat and eat and eat to gain fat -- especially before winter. But of course, all those pounds serve a purpose -- to survive hibernation.

The big mammals are helping scientists unlock some of hibernation's mysteries. But first, let's clear up a hibernation misconception.

Most people believe hibernation is bears going to sleep in November and then waking up for the first time in spring. But that's not the whole story.

They don’t spend that entire time asleep but rather have a fairly regular sleep/wake pattern. They wake up occasionally to stretch their legs and walk around their den.

Pregnant females give birth and nurse their cubs during hibernation so gaining weight before hibernation is even more important. How much fat she is able to gain before hibernating will determine the health, weight, and number of cubs.

But what scientists don't fully understand is how bears can get so heavy and yet stay relatively healthy. Because they eat so much, fat bears exhibit some of the signs of type 2 diabetes but then suddenly it reverses itself.

Studying how bears are able to beat diabetes could have implications far beyond the bear world. So, a treatment for type 2 diabetes may be hiding in hibernation.

Beyond that, it could help us travel amongst the stars. In films we see crewmembers aboard spacecraft go into hibernation chambers to conserve food and water.

It may seem far-fetched but researchers suggest, that if humans could ever find a way to lower our own metabolic rate the same way that bears do, we would be one step closer to turning that scenario from fiction to fact.

So, the key to man setting foot on Mars may be revealed through hibernating bears.

Researchers studying another hibernator -- the thirteen-lined ground squirrel -- used one of their biological tricks to help wounded soldiers survive serious injuries when help was a long way off.

The researchers created a cocktail that mimicked the squirrel’s blood during hibernation that helps prevent shock due to blood loss and can buy the wounded precious time until help arrives.