What is Hibernation? - Definition & Facts

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  • 0:01 What Is Hibernation?
  • 0:37 Why Do Animals Hibernate?
  • 1:01 Two Types of Hibernation
  • 2:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Hibernation allows animals to survive in harsh climates where others would perish. This lesson defines hibernation, discusses which animals hibernate, and includes some other facts on these awesomely long naps.

What Is Hibernation?

Have you ever wished you could just sleep through winter and avoid the icy roads, blizzards, and snow shoveling? Well, you could avoid all those things if you were an animal that hibernates. An animal that hibernates does the following during months when survival becomes difficult:

  • Slows breathing, reduces body temperature, and lowers metabolism
  • Becomes inactive
  • Gets out of sight (like moving to a burrow or a cave)
  • Prepares its body (in other words, gets fattened up)

Unfortunately, humans cannot hibernate. However, there are many species that do, including black and brown bears, ground squirrels, and even some birds!

Why Do Animals Hibernate?

It may surprise you to know that animals hibernate due to lack of food or water, and not strictly due to temperature. Of course, there is often a lack of food and water when temperatures are very cold, which is why we typically associate hibernation with winter months. But, a species of lemur in warm Madagascar hibernates due to lack of water. Most hibernators that you are familiar with, such as bears, hibernate in northern climates.

Two Types of Hibernation

Daily Torpor

When you think of hibernation, many people think of something like a big bear sleeping in a cave. Although bears do hibernate, this is only part of the story. Many small birds and mammals can undergo daily torpor, or lowering their body temperature and metabolism at night. By lowering their metabolism and body temperature, these small mammals do not need to eat as much. Remember, food is often scarce in the winter, and these small animals need a lot of food to maintain a warm body temperature. For example, hummingbirds require a lot of calories in order to maintain their fast wing beat, so hummingbirds employ daily torpor in order to survive the night without eating.

Seasonal Torpor

Animals like Arctic ground squirrels undergo seasonal torpor, or lowering their body temperatures dramatically for long periods of time. The ground squirrel can lower its body temperature to near freezing, whereas bears lower their temperature 8-12 degrees below their normal body temperature during hibernation.

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