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Hibernation: It won't make you sleepy

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Chris Packham Chris Packham | 16:34 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009

The thought of curling up or hanging up and hiding out for a few months when things are tough is a tempting fantasy and not only when it's winter that's looming. I'm not so sure about being torpid although I recall some Sunday mornings after Saturday nights when that would have been a polite description of my metabolic state.

Hibernation is another phenomenon which we adults grow to take for granted. We learn a bit about it and then it happens, out there somewhere, every autumn until we tell our own kids about it and then it carries on in the background of our lives again. But, come on, if you think about it, it's an incredible adaptation that has evolved in a whole range of species, one which influences their ecology, their behaviour and their physiology in massive ways.

Creatures that hibernate literally shut down most of their machinery. They have a system that will run undamaged on ultra-slow tick-over and then return to normal service when required. Heartbeats deliberately plummet, respiration gets reorganised and all this after deliberate sequences of behaviour which will ensure survival.

So they feed up, find or make safe spaces and then retreat for the big chill out in tune with the environment. They are even enabled and programmed to wake up and rid themselves of toxins (poo and wee) to go to sleep. And, even more impressive, whilst hibernating some of these creatures are not actually sleeping at all so they wake up to go to sleep. Now tell me you knew that and didn't think it was totally amazing!

We have been to the St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital near Aylesbury this week as it's pretty much hedgehog capital of the UK. This is a place where they nurture and release hundreds of below-par hogs every year. Some are injured but at this time of year many are simply underweight. For a hog to stand a good chance of making it through the winter it needs to weigh at least 600 grams, this indicates that it will be carrying enough fat to see it through.

So patients are wormed, flea-ed and given a rich supply of hearty dog food, a few vitamins and kept warm. And then when the scales tip in their favour they are released into sites where they will be safe from predators and tyres. Hedgehogs have not been doing very well in many parts of the UK for a while: too many pesticides, loss of habitat and increased traffic all contributing to a sad decline. So the work done here and at the many other similar practices is clearly important.

hedgehog-kate.jpg

Kate was rather smitten with this hog. I might have been a bit too

One little group of hogs that will definitely be spending Christmas indoors are a very late litter of three babies. These palm-filling cuties were a real hit with Kate (and just about everyone else), their big eyes, wriggly noses and twitchy whiskers giving them maximum pet-ability. And I confess I may have perhaps uttered a mild 'oooh' under my breath too.

(There's more cuties at St Tiggywinkles as this film shows.)

Comments

  • 1. At 4:59pm on 16 Oct 2009, i.moore wrote:

    On a slightly different tack, I am finding many Ladybirds 'hibernating' around my window frames. The other day there were something like 100 of them crawling around the southern wall of my house. From the look of them they appear to be Harlequin Ladybirds. As I understand it these are an invasive species that attack the indigenous Ladybirds, as well as being less effective at pest control, like green fly. So as they are an invasive species shouldn't we take this opportunity while they are congregating in numbers around window frames to despatch them to here after and help out our native species?

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  • 2. At 5:48pm on 16 Oct 2009, theSteB wrote:

    It's great that you are highlighting St Tiggywinkles. Every time on the messageboard there's been an inquiry about an injured hedgehog or other animal I immediately refer people to one of St Tiggwinkles excellent factsheets or their website. Yet I admit I know nothing about St Tiggywinkles except for their reputation, I have never been there, nor contacted them myself.

    Hedge pigs are one of my favourite animals and it always makes my day when I come across one. No it's not the cuteness factor with me, although the little ones are cute - it's just the way they take no notice of you once they realise you're not a threat - so you can watch them closely. It's been very sad to see their decline. However, in the last couple of years I've started to see quite a lot in the urban area in which I live and have had quite a few sightings now. So whilst I haven't seen a rural hedgehog for some time I am lucky enough to regularly see urban ones.

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  • 3. At 09:02am on 17 Oct 2009, The Artful Codger wrote:

    Hi Chris,
    Great to see/hear a mention re the Edible Dormouse (glis glis?) I remember this little fella being "discovered" late fifties or early sixties by (I think) a guy called Brian Vessey Fitzgerald, and I seem to remember that it was here in Kent?
    Do you have any information on this gentleman?

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  • 4. At 01:10am on 18 Oct 2009, Marcus Rheade-Edwards wrote:

    I was really surprised to to learn that hibernation isn't a deep sleep, and that animals have to actually come out of hibernation to have a sleep. Thats one of the reasons I love wildlife because there is always something new and interesting to learn, and the learning curve is never ending.
    I also would like to thank Chris for his other "GEEKY" facts, they are always very interesting, cheers.

    Marcus Rheade-Edwards

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  • 5. At 1:09pm on 18 Oct 2009, LeLe65 wrote:

    Hi Chris, at first i thought your "Geek " section a little twee. But now i find myself loving all the interesting facts , things that make me realise how amazing nature is ; the thing in the birds brain that helps it navigate, how hibernation ISNT sleeping,etc thankyou for keeping it all so interesting,I AM NOW A FAN OF THE" GEEK". (Who would have thought it !!!) Lele

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  • 6. At 3:48pm on 18 Oct 2009, poppylollylegs wrote:

    I have a comment to make i live in Bath and every time i come home from work i seem to be invaded by ladybirds i had nearly 1000 in my flat and there were more outside my balcony door and on the wall i had so many in my kicthen in the end i had to hoover them up i even had them in my bedroom eveywhere i looked it was a sea of red, black and yellow.

    Elaine Parfitt Bath.

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  • 7. At 9:15pm on 23 Oct 2009, kimmichim wrote:

    I'm currently researching an essay for my zoology degree on hibernation and its really interesting. I only chose it cause you got me interested in it on autumnwatch last week.....thanks for the inspiration.

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  • 8. At 9:48pm on 25 Oct 2009, katebil wrote:

    Hedgehogs are wonderful! I've had them visiting my garden most evenings for the past 4 years, each April they come back and they are all starting to hibernate around now. Even the young from this year seem to be large enough (they are fed Spikes Dinner every evening) to hibernate as we've watched them grow week by week! I'm looking forward to the spring of next year to see how many mating pairs we can spot!

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