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Animals in Winter
Hibernation vs. Torpor
A brown bear looks out from her winter den.
Surviving the Winter:
Hibernation vs. Torpor
You have likely heard that bears hibernate in the winter. You can probably imagine a big, brown bear in her fluffy winter coat settling down in a cave to sleep through the winter. But does she really sleep through the whole winter?
Many people believe the misconception that hibernation means to sleep nonstop all through the winter. In reality, it is very different. In fact, there are two different types of sleep that animals use to survive long, cold winters: hibernation and torpor.
Bats hibernate in the winter.
Hibernation Is Not Just a Long Nap
Many animals hibernate, such as bears, bats, and rodents. Hibernation is when an animal eats a lot less and sleeps a lot more during the winter months.
Some animals hibernate in the winter to conserve energy. If there is not a lot of food available to eat in the winter, they don’t want to waste energy looking for food. During the summer and autumn, they will eat a lot to build up fat on their bodies. Fat is energy, and they need enough energy stored in their body to last the winter. As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, they begin to hibernate.
During hibernation, their bodies naturally fall into a rhythm of sleeping for most of the day. Their breathing, heart rate, and metabolism will also slow down. This is nature’s way of helping the animals go through the energy stored in their fat more slowly. Contrary to popular belief, animals that hibernate do not sleep through the entire winter. They will still get up and walk around, and even eat a little if they can.
Torpor: A Life-Saving Super Power
Remember how part of hibernation involves the slowing down of breathing, heart rate, and metabolism? This process is called torpor.
While hibernation is a season-long change in behaviors, torpor is a short-term physical reaction that many animals’ bodies have to cold temperatures. For example, when it reaches below freezing on a cold winter night, a hummingbird’s body falls into torpor. However, when the temperature warms up the next day, it will wake back up, and its breathing, heart rate, and metabolism will go back to normal.
We would not say that hummingbirds hibernate, because it is not a season-long change in behavior. Birds specifically use torpor instead of hibernation because there is still enough food for them to eat in the winter. This is because many birds store seeds and nuts for winter, or switch to a diet of mostly insects.
Compare and Contrast
How are hibernation and torpor alike and different?
Both hibernation and torpor are used by animals to survive the winter, but there are a few essential differences. In both hibernation and torpor, there is a noticeable change in an animal’s breathing, heart rate, and metabolism due to the temperature. However, the similarities stop there.
When an animal is hibernating, their eating and sleeping behaviors change for the entire winter. In contrast, torpor only changes an animal’s eating and sleeping behaviors for short amounts of time, such as overnight or during a winter storm. As the temperature warms up every morning, or after the storm blows through, the animal returns to its normal behaviors. Scientists are still trying to figure out if torpor is just a part of the hibernation process or if they are two completely different processes. We still don’t know for sure. What we do know is that some animals hibernate for all of winter, while others only fall into torpor on an as-needed basis throughout the winter months.