Hibernation of Animals: Why Do Animals Hide Out During the Winter?

The weather gets colder as winter approaches, the days shorten, the leaves change color and fall, and the ground is covered with snow. While humans enjoy the warmth of their homes and wear sweaters and cardigans, animals have a much different experience of the changing environment.   Hibernation, a fascinating phenomenon observed in many animals, serves as a survival strategy during the harsh winter months. While birds, which are warm-blooded creatures, do not typically undergo hibernation, many warm and cold-blooded animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, enter a state of dormancy to conserve energy and endure the cold temperatures

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Bitely Team
Last update:calendarFeb 22, 2024
Read time:clock6 min
Hibernation of Animals: Why Do Animals Hide Out During the Winter?

The weather gets colder as winter approaches, the days shorten, the leaves change color and fall, and the ground is covered with snow. While humans enjoy the warmth of their homes and wear sweaters and cardigans, animals have a much different experience of the changing environment.

 

Hibernation, a fascinating phenomenon observed in many animals, serves as a survival strategy during the harsh winter months. While birds, which are warm-blooded creatures, do not typically undergo hibernation, many warm and cold-blooded animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, enter a state of dormancy to conserve energy and endure the cold temperatures. Cold-blooded animals, also known as ectotherms, rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature, making them particularly vulnerable to the cold. In contrast, warm-blooded animals, or endotherms, can generate their own body heat and maintain a relatively constant internal temperature, allowing them to remain active throughout the winter. Understanding the differences between cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals sheds light on the diverse strategies employed by different species to survive in changing environmental conditions.


 

Hibernators need a safe and warm spot to survive the winter by storing food in their stomachs and digesting it steadily in a sleep-like state. Meanwhile, those who cannot sleep through the winter, store their food in shelters.

 

What would it be like to sleep the winter off? Sounds cozy? A phenomenon like this is called hibernation, that usually occurs in warm-blooded animals. It’s a form of passive rest very much like sleep. However, what differentiates hibernation from sleep is that there are significant alterations in body during hibernation compared to sleeping. 

 

During this process, animals usually remain completely motionless, slowing down all functions in their bodies dramatically, including their hearbeats and breathing. If you were to encounter a hibernating animal, there’s a good chance you might mistake them for being dead. Their body temperature can drop to zero degrees, yet it takes only a few hours for their body to return to normal temperature when the weather warms up.

 

But why do animals hibernate? Isn’t it such a waste of time? Well, food isn't as easy to find for animals as it is for humans. So it is more like a life and death situation rather than a holiday break. Thus, warm-blooded animals obtain energy by burning the food they store in their bodies, since cold weather takes their food away in various ways. Furthermore, by reducing overall activity, they save their much needed energy. 

 

Animals usually hibernate if they feed on grass, seeds, fruits or insects and do not have wings to migrate to better climatic conditions.

 

The most well-known hibernators are;

  • Bear
  • Bat
  • Squirrel
  • Some crocodiles
  • Hedgehog
  • Bee
  • Frog

 

Contrary to popular belief, not all bears hibernate. Although some bears sleep extensively in caves during winter, this is not hibernation. For example, the brown bear hibernates during winter to conserve energy when food is scarce, but not the polar bear. Throughout the year, the polar bear can hunt seals on the ice without having to hibernate. Therefore, animals who have the ability or the favourable conditions to deal with the challenges of the winter do not have to remain idle for a long period of time.

 

Hibernation does not last throughout the winter. Animals enter a sleep period of several days as the weather starts to cool. As the conditions of the winter season get heavier, these periods get longer. An animal in hibernation is usually unable to be awakened by external influences, and if they do, it may cause them serious harm. 

 

Studies have shown that animals survive under unusual conditions while hibernating. For example, a hibernating hedgehog can survive without breathing for more than 15 minutes.

Hibernating animals stop digesting and excreting, waking up rarely for a quick release of feces. As a matter of fact, some bears could remain motionless for up to eight months. 

 

But animals aren’t the only ones hibernating through winter. Towards the end of Autumn, you will notice that the trees shed their leaves and, for a few months, they enter a period of rest without growing flowers or fruits. In winter, all trees, including evergreens, display a state of reduced vital activity. Due to this, many animals are deprived of sufficient food to survive. Hibernation of such trees causes many animals, especially those living in forests, to hibernate as well. 

 

Historically, as humans, we used to significantly reduce our vital activity during winter too. Before we were capable of producing food regardless of the weather conditions, and develop the technology and clothing necessary to keep us warm, spending time outside during winter was out of the question. It required too much energy and resource for nothing. In fact, back in medieval times, most people would only wake up to pile wood on the fire and go back to sleep.

 

Well, it’s a blessing that we now have the capabilities to deal with the winter’s challenges. We are lucky to take in all the enjoyment the winter brings, from the soothing sight of the snowfall to having a cup of coffee in our warm homes. 

 

 


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