The Real Scoop on Hibernating Black Bears

Allison Loudermilk

Hey there, black bear, glad to see you're up at last. (Image courtesy Tom Brakefield/Getty Images)

Have you ever wondered whether you had a slow metabolism? You probably don't, because it's rare, according to the Mayo Clinic folks. On the other hand, black bears in hibernation do. We know this thanks to five American black bears and a handful of intrepid researchers based out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who got an up-close, heavily documented look at what happens during hibernation. The research was released today in the journal Science.

The researchers found that the creatures' metabolic rates slowed down by 75 percent compared to active summertime levels. That remarkable slowing threw scientists for a loop. Until now, the thought was that if your metabolism slowed that much, your body temperature had to plummet, too. Not so with the five bears in the experiment, who grew colder by five or six degrees. Those rates didn't rise until about three weeks after they'd been awake and sauntering around.

All that downtime for the bears is probably making you say, hey, forget pigs in space. Let's send bears! Now if we could just figure out how to occupy live bears in tiny capsules for the rest of the long space journey.

Decidedly less important but no less interesting (to me), the scientists also noticed that the bears periodically rearranged the bedding material in their artificial dens as often as twice a day. Hey, wouldn't you, if you were snoozing for months on end? And, just in case you're curious, some bears snore. If you have a large dog, you know the sound.

No word on the question at the top of my list: How exactly do hibernating bears go without peeing and pooping for months on end? Guess I'll have to rely on what a few renal fellows blogging at the National Kidney Foundation have to say about this matter. Which is pretty much, we don't know.

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