Do Bears Hibernate?
Yes, most bears do hibernate. A large percentage of bear habitat go’s through extremely cold conditions in the winter. During this time, not only is it cold, but their food supply becomes very limited. To complicate things more, if the snow piles too deeply, even mobility becomes difficult.
Over eons of time, most bears have developed physiological adaptations that enable them to live with these conditions. Essentially they stock up on extra calories when food is plentiful and then go into a den and sleep for a majority of the winter. While they’re sleeping their bodies break down their fat stores to use as energy and keep them alive at this time.
Most bears do hibernate in the winter. However, the process that they go through is slightly different than that of the animals that science classifies as deep hibernators. Bears are light hibernators along with raccoons and skunks. Their metabolism slows way down along with their pulse and respiratory rates, but their body temperature stays relatively warm, and they don’t sink into as deep a state of sleep as that of a “deep hibernator.”
I’ve heard it said that what bears enter into in the winter is not hibernation but merely a form of torpor. The first half of this statement is incorrect, while the second half is correct. We’ll explain why below.
Hibernation vs Torpor
Torpor is a state of being where an animal’s metabolism slows way down. In medical terms, it’s a hypometabolic state. Animals go into torpor to reduce the number of calories they need to take in to survive during times of adverse conditions. Thermoregulation or the act of body temperature regulation uses 40 to 60% of the energy that an animal takes in. Source To cut down on energy costs when it’s cold, or food is scarce, some animals go into torpor.
Some animals, such as marsupials, go through daily torpor. Daily torpor lasts for less than 24 hours and is then followed by continued foraging.
Other animals go through long-term torpor. This long-term torpor can last for months where animals sleep and go without eating or drinking. This long-term torpor is otherwise known as Hibernation. Source
According to the manuscript titled, “BEHAVIOR, BIOCHEMISTRY, AND HIBERNATION IN BLACK, GRIZZLY, AND POLAR BEARS” by Ralph A. Nelson, Edgar Folk, Egbert W. Pfeiffer, John J. Craighead, Charles J. Jonke, Dianne L. Steiger, Black and Grizzly bears pass through 4 physiological stages in a year.
Stage 1 – Hibernation. Studies by Edgar Folk, conclude that black bears and grizzly bears are true hibernators. They go through physiological modifications similar to those in deep hibernators. They have decreases in heart rate, metabolic rate, and body temperature. However, their hibernation differs from that of deep hibernators in that bears hibernate at near-normal body temperature and continuously sleep. On the other hand, deep hibernators such as bats and rodents hibernate at near ambient temperatures and wake up from time to time to eat, drink, urinate, and defecate.
Stage 2- Walking Hibernation. After bears emerge from their dens they go through a period of adjustment called walking hibernation. From 10-14 days they take in very little food or water. Annalisis of there urine and blood shows that even though they are awake, physiologiclly they are still in hibernation mode. Walking hibernation lasts for 2-3 weeks. Bears then begin to eat and drink normally and return to normal activity.
Stage 3- Normal Activity. From late spring to early fall bears are in stage 3. At this time they can consume 5,000 to 8,000 calories per day.
Stage 4- Hyperphagia. This is where they are packing on the fat for winter hibernation. Their daily food intake increases dramatically. Grizzly bears in hyperphagia observed in the wild feed up to 20 hours a day in the late fall to prepare for hibernation. During this time, bears transition from consuming around 8000 calories to packing on 15 to 20 thousand calories each day along with copious amounts of water to help them process all of that food.
Around the middle of October, the bear’s body goes through hormonal changes. They cease to be interested in gorging on food, and their appetite diminishes considerably. At this point, their body transitions into torpor mode.
They will soon enter their winter den and begin hibernating. The hibernation time for bears varies with the environment. In places like northern Canada and Alaska, bears hibernate up to six months out of the year. A hibernating bear’s heart rate drops to 8-10 beats per minute. Additionally, they only average 1 breath per minute. Their body temperature does not plummet like their pulse, and breathing rate does. A bear in hibernation still has a body temperature of 88° F (31°C). This is only 12° F lower than their normal temperature.
Even though they are asleep, hibernating bears still burn a lot of calories. By the time they wake up in the spring, they will have lost up to 33% of the weight they had before hibernation began. Source
Bear Hibernation in Contrast to the Hibernation of Deep Hibernators
The bodies of ‘deep’ hibernators shut down almost entirely during the winter. Their temperatures plummet to near-ambient numbers, as do their metabolic rates. Some of these species, like the chipmunk, periodically wake up for brief periods to move around, eat, drink, or pass waste, while others, such as the bat, go the entire winter without food or water.
This is not the case when it comes to bears. They do not sleep as deeply. While their metabolism slows down considerably, their body temperature drops only slightly compared to that of a deep hibernator. Their sleep is light enough that changes in the temperature of their surroundings, or any disturbance, will arouse them.
The Physiological Changes That Take Place During Hibernation.
The state of hibernation makes sure that the animal can survive harsh climatic conditions by causing physiological changes. So, with bears, what are these psychological changes?
When a bear is in hibernation mode, its body go’s into a state of metabolic suppression. Its heart rate and breathing rate both drop markedly. During the entire period of hibernation, the bear neither urinates nor defecates. As a result, the level of nitrogen in the blood increases significantly. If this happened in a human body, the damage to the liver and kidneys would be detrimental, maybe even fatal. However, the case is different with bears because nothing of the sort is observed.
Additionally, the bear’s body becomes resistant to insulin. Normally, insulin is essential in making sure that blood sugar levels remain at an optimal range. However, with an animal that has fasted for several months, insulin in the blood keeps glucose from being available to the brain. Source
Six months of continuous sleep for other animals would result in the muscles entering a state of atrophy. Additionally, the animal’s bones would become brittle and porous, a condition; known as osteoporosis. However, bears come through hibernation with no bone loss. They retain their muscle and bone mass in hibernation. They actually end up with more muscle mass, even though their bodyweight decreases by up to 33%.
The nitrogen in the bear’s body, a byproduct of fat metabolism, is synthesized to produce proteins, which are then used to maintain the organ and muscle mass. Moreover, the bear’s body can recycle its water, ergo avoiding dehydration and conditions like kidney failure.
Black bears, brown bears and grizzly bears generally do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate during hibernation. They normally survive on a fat layer built up during the fall and summer months. Note that their bodies produce waste, but they recycle it instead of disposing of it.
It’s during the hibernation period that female bears give birth. Though bears mate in the summer season, the fertilized egg doesn’t implant in the female’s uterine wall until the winter starts. The female bear gives birth approximately 2 months later in late January or early February. The newborn bear cubs do not hibernate. They’re born hairless and blind but not completely helpless. They find their mother’s nipples and nurse to stay alive. They obtain all the nutrients they need through their mother’s milk. On the other hand their mother will be a state of on and off hibernation until she emerges from her den in the spring.
Do Black Bears in Florida Hibernate?
Bears don’t hibernate in Florida, but they do enter a light state of torpor. In more northerly latitudes, bears hibernate to escape the harsh climatic conditions that come with the winter and conserve energy since food sources become rare or completely unavailable.
Bears in Florida do not have to hibernate to escape cold temperatures because the state is relatively warm all year round. January is the coldest month in Florida, and the average temperature for the state is still 58.1°.
The Black bears in Florida enter a state of lethargy because even though conditions aren’t as severe as they are in northern latitudes, there’s still less food availability there than there is during the summer months. They don’t hibernate though.
When Do Black Bears Come Out of Hibernation?
Bears hibernate at different times, depending on their sex. For male bears, the state of hibernation starts around the middle of December and ends in the middle of March. Female bears, because they give birth during winter, normally take longer to come out of hibernation. Theirs starts in late November and ends in the middle of April when they emerge from their dens with their cubs.
How Long Do Bears Hibernate in Alaska?
The bears in the northern regions of Alaska hibernate for about six months. This is because the winter in Alaska is longer, and this affects the period of hibernation. In the southern, warmer regions of Alaska, the bears hibernate for 2 to 5 months. During this winter dormancy, bears are in dens that they’ve dug out beneath boulders or downed trees or some other sheltering object. They also may use a hollow tree or a natural cave as a winter denning site.
Do Polar Bears Hibernate ?
Polar bears go through the same physiological changes that black bears and grizzly bears do but there is no set pattern as to when it will take place. In general, they will go into a kind of walking hibernation in the summer months where they need and consume very little food. Blood tests done on some of these bears indicate that physiologically they are in a similar state to stage 2 for a Black or Grizzly bear. Some times they will even den in the summer but not always.
They spend the winter months hunting seals on the pack ice. This is the time that generally they’re laying on fat against the time when food is harder to find
Polar bears may temporarily den in the winter when the weather is especially severe. At this time they’re not in a state of hibernation.
Pregnant female polar bears do build and go into dens where they give birth and raise their cubs until they’re three months old. During this time, the female bear doesn’t eat or drink. Instead, she depends on her fat reserves to sustain herself and her cubs. Again, she is in a state of torpor at this time but not in a state of complete winter sleep.
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What do bears do for water during hibernation? ›
Many bears pass more than half of every year in hibernation, neither eating nor drinking any water. Hibernating mothers can even suckle their young without leaving their den for a drink. They obtain their water by metabolizing fat reserves, which does produce waste.Where do bears live when they hibernate? ›
Most bears hibernate or den during the winter months. The length of denning depends on location, and can vary from a few days or weeks to a few months or more. Bears make their dens in hollow trees or logs, under the root mass of a tree, in rock crevices, or even high in a tree in warmer climates.Do bears wake up during hibernation to drink water? ›
A) Bears hibernate during winter, but aren't sleeping the whole time. Hibernation for bears simply means they don't need to eat or drink, and rarely urinate or defecate (or not at all). There is strong evolutionary pressure for bears to stay in their dens during winter, if there is little or no food available.How do bears hibernate without drinking water? ›
Hibernating bears enter a shallow torpor with a decrease in body temperature of only 10 degrees. It's metabolism and hear rate slows down. But it doesn't need to eat, drink or pass waste. In order to survive, fat in the bear's body breaks down into water and calories for the body to use.Do bears go to the toilet during hibernation? ›
According to the National Park Service, black bears and grizzly bears generally do not urinate (pee) or defecate (poop) while hibernating. During hibernation, poop (and other stuff) builds up in the bear's lower intestine to form a fecal plug.How do bears hibernate without pooping? ›
During hibernation bears do not eat, drink, defecate, or urinate. Once inside their dens bears form a kind of plug composed of feces, dead intestinal cells, hair, and bedding material in their anus. They continue to produce some feces during hibernation yet they do not defecate.