Fall into Hibernation With Fun Science!

Beautiful leaves, fruitful harvests, and cooler weather are all things we think of when we picture fall.  It is a transitional time from the sweltering summer months to the frigid winter months.  For many creatures, fall is also a transitional time when they prep for hibernation.

What exactly is hibernation?

Bears snoozing in a den is what many of us probably imagine when we think hibernation, but a lot of different types of animals hibernate and experience similar processes.  Hibernation is a state of inactivity and metabolic slowdown in endotherms i.e. warm-blooded organisms. It is characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing and heart rate, and low metabolic rate.

Many ectotherms (i.e. cold-blooded organisms) seem to hibernate via a similar process called brumation.  Remember that the main thing that differentiates warm-blooded and cold-blooded creatures is that warm-blooded organisms can self-regulate their temperature and metabolic responses.  Whereas cold-blooded organisms’ metabolism reacts in response to their environment.  So cold environment = slower metabolisms for all ectotherms versus cold-environment = hibernation for some endotherms but not all.  Fish seem to hibernate but are an example of an ectotherm slowing down in response to the cold.

Hibernation is a considered a period of energy-saving torpor.  Torpor is a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal and includes a lower body temperature and metabolic rate.  Some animals experience what is called daily torpor, which refers to a period of low body temperature and metabolism lasting less than 24 hours.  For instance, hummingbirds experience a state of torpor just at night and have been known to hang upside down from their perch while in this state.

Hibernation in general occurs in winter and the opposite of hibernation is called aestivation, which occurs in the summer months.  Many invertebrates and amphibians have an aestivation cycle that helps them survive hot, arid seasons.

Why hibernate?

Whether it is hibernation or aestivation it is all about surviving extremes.  It is a way for animals to survive difficult conditions.  For instance, winter for a bear or squirrel means cold temperatures, not a lot of food, very little camouflage cover.  Despite being in a vulnerable torpor state, being out in those conditions seem way riskier. The risk of vulnerability must have been outweighed by the benefits of hibernation for bears and other creatures to evolve this unique mechanism.

Prep for hibernation

Bears, for instance, have a period prior to hibernation where they eat and drink in excess to build up their fat stores for hibernation.  Gorging themselves on nuts, berries and other food sources while they are around help them survive once they go into torpor and hibernate for several months.  They also have a transition period where they aren’t hibernating but their metabolism is beginning to slow so they start to eat less and sleep more.   The creation of a cozy den or nest is also essential for hibernation. This keeps body heat contained, protects from the elements, and conceals the hibernating animals.

Can humans hibernate?

You might feel sleepier in the winter months, but humans never evolved to hibernate.  Part of that reasoning is that since we evolved in equatorial, tropical Africa where there is a consistent food supply we would not have needed to hibernate to escape harsh conditions.  We also would have been a top predator, so less likely to need hibernation to avoid predators.  We are also bigger and most hibernators are small with the obvious exceptions here and there (bears).

Our hearts are also different from other mammals that hibernate.  Our hearts contract in response to calcium. So, if our heart gets too cold, there is a buildup of calcium and we go into cardiac arrest.  Mammals that hibernate have a special pump that gets rid of excess calcium, which means their hearts continue to beat at much lower temperatures.

Scientists are interested in engineering ways for humans to hibernate because it would aid in long-term space travel.  Astronauts must exercise 6 hours a day in space to prevent muscle and bone atrophy, which might be avoided if they could hibernate.  Hibernation obviously would reduce the amount of supplies they would need, and could protect from radiation.  A year in space right now is the max an astronaut can do without significantly increasing the odds that they’ll get cancer and other side effects due to radiation.

August E-News: Mother Nature’s Olympians Crowned!

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games have officially begun and five days in, the athletes are well on their way to captivating the world with their super-human abilities. Watching these athletes in action, vying for gold can be mesmerizing to those of us sitting at home. The Olympics are a time to celebrate the world’s fastest and strongest humans in the world – the best of the best. But we wondered, how would record-breaking runners, such as the fastest man in the world Usain Bolt, fare against the wilder side of the animal kingdom?

These Olympians of the natural world could easily make humans look somewhat unimpressive when compared to their strength, speed, agility and endurance used daily as a matter of survival. In honor of the Summer Games, we thought we would shake things up a bit and highlight some spectacular “Animal Olympians” with gold medal-worthy abilities. 

Track & Field

High-Jump Stars

The High-Jump champion of the animal world may just be the spittle bug. This insect is only as long as a pencil eraser but it can jump 115 times higher than its body length, while the record for humans is just a little over 8 feet. That’s about 1.25 times the height of the record-holder,Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor.  In comparison, the spittle bugs jump would be the equivalent of a person leaping over a 70-story skyscraper!!

Long Jump

 

Tiny crustaceans called copepods were recently named the world’s best animal jumpers. They leap with greater muscle power than kangaroos, frogs and all other impressive animal jumpers. copepods can accelerate to 500 body lengths per second when they perform an escape jump away from countless underwater predators. VIDEO: See a copepod perform its medaling jumps!

Sprinting

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is credited as the fastest human, with a top running speed of 27.79 mph. In the animal kingdom, the cheetah can bolt at speeds over 70 miles per hour or more for short bursts, making them the world’s fastest land animals. But even that doesn’t always ensure this big cat gets a meal. The gazelles and other small antelope that are the cheetah’s main prey are not as fast as the cat, but they have greater endurance and agility in a high-speed chase and often escape the spotted speedster.

Also on the podium would be the pronghorn antelope and the world’s fastest bird, the Ostrich. Both of these animals are strong medal contenders for any running events with the pronghorn pulling out at 55mph followed by the ostrich clocking in at an amazing 40mph.

In The Pool – Amazing Aquatics

400 Meter Freestyle

 

In the pool, both Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps may have some competition when it comes to the incredible sailfish. This fish shoots through the water reaching a swimming speed of 67mph! Their high speed would allow them to zip through any Olympics swimming event with ease!  

VIDEO: Watch Sailfish in Action in this LIFE clip.

Fish, sharks and marine mammals are such talented swimmers that Olympic athletes study their movements and wear swim suits modeled after their body structures. Dall porpoises can swim up to 35 miles per hour, making them the fastest water-dwelling mammals, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s director of biomechanics, stated that the dolphin/porpoise-style kick can make or break most human swimming races. “This is when swimmers push off walls and swim underwater without moving their arms,” he explained.

Relay Swimming

 

The killer whale or orca can swim up to 30 mph, however, it usually cruises at much slower speeds, between 2 to 6mph. The best contender for relay swimming would be the gentoo penguin. This bird may not be able to fly in the air like other birds, but it makes up for its flaws by flying through the water. With wings that work as paddles, this penguin is shaped for swimming reaching speeds up to 15mph – three times faster than humans!  

Diving

 

The beaked whale, actually more closely related to dolphins than whales, can dive deeper in the ocean than any other animal. Heading down to depths of 6,230 feet, that’s over a mile deep, it can then hold its breath for 85 minutes before resurfacing for air. Their breathing and blood-circulation systems are made for this, since they have much more oxygen in their muscles than we do and they can send more oxygen through their blood to their brains and hearts. 

Weight Lifting

Even Olympic weightlifters would have to contend with some fierce competition from the wild side.  The heaviest individual weight lifted by a human in an Olympic competition was 580.9 pounds, a record set by Iran’s Hossein Rezazadeh. Weighing in at 340 pounds, Rezazadeh falls short of lifting an object with a mass twice his own weight. It’s hard to believe that his efforts would fall short of a medal when up against a beetle. That’s right, an insect, could, pound for pound, blow away all other human and animal contenders.  The Rhinoceros Beetle can lift up to 850 times their own weight!  Battling it out for the Silver & Bronze would be the African Elephant and the African Gorilla.

VIDEO: Watch a Rhino Beetle Put to the Test

Gymnastics


The African Bush Baby is a tiny primate and lives in the treetops. It has incredible gymnastic abilities. As it prowls the tropical forests at night looking for fruits and insects to devour, bush babies can make leaps of 20 feet or more, which is many times their own body length. They are great jumpers and acrobats too as they move in complete silence and can see in almost absolute darkness with the help of their huge eyes.

Animal Olympians are much like human Olympians – there is something about them that makes them stand out from the rest. Some of them run, swim or fly faster than other animals. Others can jump higher, dive deeper, or lift more. A few are Olympians because they live the longest, grow the tallest, weigh the most, or are simply the strongest. What animal would you nominate for an Olympic medal?

If you want to learn more and are ready for some Olympic sized fun, check out the full list of Animal Olympians here.

Discover more FUN about Animal Olympians with a few fun facts & try your hand at some Olympic Sized trivia!  

Are Pit Bulls Inherently Dangerous? Science Says No…

 

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently deemed pit bulls and pit bull mixes “inherently dangerous,” but many animal experts and dog advocates believe the court’s ruling may have been too extreme.”Inherently dangerous” implies that all pit bulls are, through genetics or their environment, born with a vicious streak. But studies are showing that the science does not seem to support this.  

For example, a University of Pennsylvania study on dogs found that the top three biters of humans were actually smaller dogs: Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers.

Pit bulls didn’t always have such a bad rap. In the early part of the 20th century, this breed was in fashion and became quite popular as a family pet. “The Little Rascals,” a series highlighting child actors, even featured a spunky pit bull. Have the dogs then changed over the years? Some have with the help of their owners & genetic science. 

“It is possible to breed in or out certain traits, with some dogs purposefully bred for fighting,” Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian who is also co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, told Discovery News.

She said that studies on foxes suggest that a trait possibly affecting personality can appear in just two to three generations. Pit bulls & any other breed of dogs that are bred using this genetic science seem to be more aggressive against other dogs, but not necessarily humans. Scarlett, said that countless pit bulls nationwide are highly socialized and well trained, never hurting anyone. Much then comes down to the owners, and therein lies the real problem.

Scarlett indicated that at least one study is underway to see if certain factors predict if a segment of the population is at greater risk for being attacked by a dog. Anecdotally, socioeconomic factors, whether or not a dog has been spayed or neutered, and whether or not a dog has been socialized and trained, appear to predict attacks.

Read the full story on Discovery.com