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Living with Wildlife

Hibernation and Bears

The Living with Wildlife column is published monthly in the Rocky Mountain Outlook to create awareness of living with wildlife challenges. We also work with local newspapers, radio and television stations to promote wildlife safety issues through the media on a weekly basis.

Where are the bears? The last leaf has fallen, the first snow storm has arrived, and bears are preparing for their long winters nap.

Generally speaking, sows with cubs are the first to den, while males are the last. Currently, many bears in our valley are in the process of denning, though a few are still awake and active.

Examples of black bear dens include dirt scrapes, the underneath of overturned tree roots, and caves. Grizzly bears usually, but not always, create their own dens via digging into either the ground or snow. The size of the den is usually just big enough for the bear to turn around in.

Hibernation is the physiological process that allows bears to sleep the winter away. Their heart and metabolic rates decrease approximately 80%, and their body temperature decreases by about 5 degrees Celsius. Hibernation is a dynamic state, where the metabolic rate and state of comatose fluctuates over time. When hibernation is light, bears will wake up. This awakening occurs periodically during the winter.

Most hibernating animals are small in size. Bats, siberian hamsters, and pygmy possums are a few examples. It is much more difficult for a large animal to hibernate. The sheer size of a bear makes their ability to hibernate a remarkable process. However, the bear has a few other tricks up its sleeve. When hibernating, bears do not eat or drink. Instead, they use their fat stores for energy. If humans relied solely on fat for energy, we would fall into a diabetic coma, due to the production of a toxic chemical called ketones. Why bears do not suffer this fate is of extreme interest to the medical community. When fat is used in the body, water is created, and this water hydrates the bear, so they don’t need to drink. Bears also do not urinate during hibernation. One of the main purposes of urination is to get rid of yet another toxic chemical called ammonia. Humans with certain kidney problems cannot get rid of ammonia by themselves, and require medical intervention such as dialysis. Again, the bear does not suffer our fate. Instead, they use a by-product from their fat usage to bind and neutralize the ammonia. Bears barely move when hibernating. In humans, this lack of movement would cause muscle atrophy, where the muscle gets weak and decreases in size. But not the bear! Instead, they use the neutralized ammonia to maintain muscle strength. This last trick is of interest to researchers involved in space travel!

So not only are bears an integral part of our ecosystem, they are also fascinating in terms of their physiology.

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Residents are encouraged to report any sightings of bear, cougar or aggressive elk to 403-591-7755.
For all public safety emergencies call 9-1-1.

 

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