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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Science: What’s It Up To?

Hibernation – The lazy man’s winter

Has anyone else noticed that May sucks? Besides marking the start of the cold, the wet and the wind, May represents overdue assignments, all that summer money you saved trafficking arms to war-torn nations is running out, and—adding insult to injury— avocados at the supermarket are suddenly getting expensive again (where are my avos, Scott?).

With this in mind, this column is about a process I wish we could do – hibernation.

Kiwis don’t tend to know very much about hibernation as it doesn’t happen here. Here’s a few interesting things I discovered about it while I was—incidentally—doing some late night Wikipediaing:

Hibernation isn’t just a long sleep. Rather, it is a long term state of inactivity in animals, characterized by lower body temperature, slower breathing, and lower metabolic rate. Sleep is primarily distinguished by changes in brain activity. In fact, the brainwaves of hibernating animals closely resemble their wakeful brainwave patterns, though they’re somewhat suppressed. When an animal awakes from hibernation, it exhibits many signs of sleep deprivation and needs to sleep a lot over the next few days to recover.

The first animal that may spring to mind when you think hibernation might be the bear. However, while bears go into a state of torpor, their body heat does not lower sufficiently for this to be called hibernation. They keep it real though—their bodies recycle their urine into protein and before they settle down they plug their anuses with a mix of faeces, hair and bedding material called a ‘tappen’.

One animal that hibernates the shit out of winter is the arctic ground squirrel. It’s the only mammal that can survive its body temperature going below freezing – in some cases up to -30C. What’s more, it can maintain this state for six months, even though the smallest unexpected movement is enough to start a fatal chain reaction that will cause their blood and tissues to freeze solid.

Can we do it? Peter Skyllberg, a badass Swede, survived being trapped in his car for two months in the middle of winter. As the car was buried in snow, he lay shivering curled up in his sleeping bag while temperatures went as low as -300C. His starving body shut down, muscle by muscle, organ by organ. Miraculously, it was the freezing temperatures and scarce oxygen that may actually have saved Skyllberg’s life. This rocked the medical world as it was previously thought primates did not have a hibernation mechanism.

So if you’re thinking hibernation sounds like a pretty nice break from uni, then try the Skyllberg Technique! (Salient in no way endorses anyone trying the Skyllberg Technique).

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