Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | November 16, 2010

The Science Of Hibernation – The Fun Stuff

Yesterday’s blog on hibernation just sucked, and for that I apologize.  I tried too hard to fit stuff in and wound up beating all the fun right out of it.  Today I’d like to redeem myself by giving you actually interesting facts and ideas (most of it is bear-centric, which is not a particular bias of mine.  I’m guessing bears are either easier or sexier to study.)

For example, because bears pack on so much fat in such a short amount of time (30 pounds per week, which is the equivalent of 75 Krispy Kreme glazed donuts a day) their cholesterol goes through the roof.  Despite this, bears never have a problem with hardening of the arteries or gallstones.  Gallstones form in the gallbladder where bile sits and waits between meals.  While it cools its heels, the bile will become up to five times more concentrated and the cholesterol it contains can sometimes form lumps known as gallstones.    Folks who’ve had gallstones describe the pain as “stabbing and heart-attack-ish.”  Bears avoid this unpleasantness by producing ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which of course has brought them much unwanted attention by gallstone-sufferers.  Although UDCA is now synthetically produced and used as a non-surgical treatment for gallstones, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners still prescribe actual bear bile, resulting in “farming” and exploitation of animals.

Another interesting feat – as a bear breaks down around 4,000 calories a day from its fat, muscle and organ tissues, it also rebuilds the organs and muscles using the nitrogen from urea.  Any starving mammal can consume its own body and build up a toxic level of urea in the process, but those clever ursines manage to reduce, recycle and reuse in the most efficient way.

Bears also manage to keep their bodies hydrated without drinking a single drop of water for over three months.  No one knows (yet) how they manage to do this, but the amount of urine collected in the kidneys drops by 95 percent.  If researchers can figure out this neat trick it could go a long way to helping folks with chronic kidney failure.

Not all animals hibernate because of the cold.  In Madagascar, the “winter” temperatures sometimes reach a chilly 860 F, but it’s the short supply of water that prompts a fat-tailed dwarf lemur  to hole up for seven months.  Either that, or it’s depressed about the size of its butt.  Since my primary impressions of lemurs are embodied in King Julien of the Disney movie, I can see it either way.

Hopefully these more lively facts have peaked your interest and cleansed your palate of yesterday’s, um, crap.  I promise to never try too hard again.



  1. I thought your excerpt on hibernation was really interesting actually, totally not crap. And King Julien is my favorite lemur as well.
    By the way, I think your writing is very interesting and funny, each one makes me want to read more. I’ve already read 7 of your excerpts and I’m pretty sure that’s not what Paul is paying me for, but I couldn’t help it! 🙂

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