hibernating bear coloring page

Why Do Bears Hibernate?

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Video Transcript:

Hey there friends, I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and this is Facts to Relax, the show where I research life’s most burning questions and share the answers with you. 

Today we’re going to talk about bears and why they hibernate. If you want to color along with me while we learn, you can download the picture on the screen from my website at yvonnepage.com/youtube.

If I know anything about bears, and I’ll admit, I don’t know much, it’s that every winter they find caves, climb inside, and go to sleep or “hibernate” until spring. This long winter’s nap is the cornerstone of what it means to be a bear, right? Along with loving honey and preventing forest fires, of course.

But what is hibernation all about?

Do all bears hibernate?

How long do they hibernate?

What happens if you wake a hibernating bear?

What other animals hibernate?

And perhaps, the most important question of all…

Do bears poop when they hibernate?

We’re going to answer all of these questions and more-right here, right now!

Hibernation is an evolutionary method for animals to survive tough, cold winters but not all animals do it. Many birds deal with the cold by migrating to warmer climates in the winter months. Wolves have developed thick coats that help them adapt to the cold temperatures. Humans have figured out how to build fires, layer clothing, and more recently, utilize modern forms of heating to keep ourselves warm and push through those cold winter months. And then there are the animals that just decide that the best way to get through the cold season is to take a ridiculously long nap until it’s all over. And honestly, that’s an option I think about every morning while I’m dragging myself out of bed in the cold and dark to trudge off to work in a car that never seems to warm up until I’m halfway there. Why can’t I too go into hibernation mode for a while? Why weren’t we built like bears? They say we’re the most advanced species of mammals but sometimes I really do question that theory.

Well, it turns out, hibernation is actually more complicated than simply just going to sleep for a few months so you don’t have to deal with cold and snow. Sleeping is a big part of it but hibernation actually involves the lowering of an animal’s body temperature, metabolic rate, heart rate, and breathing rate through the resting of their bodies. This helps them stay warm enough and survive on much less food than they normally need the rest of the year. And in fact, though many animals hibernate, they all seem to do it a little bit differently…

Here’s a list of some animals that hibernate:

Garter snakes, box turtles, snails, marmots, bats, poorwill birds, bumblebees, hedgehogs, wood frogs, chipmunks, ground squirrels, skunks, groundhogs, prairie dogs, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, and, of course, BEARS.

Here’s how a few of them do it: 

Turtles simply pull their extremities into their shells and sleep for about 3-4 months. They might come out for water but that’s about it.

Most bumblebees die before winter but the queens hibernate by digging into north facing banks and stay tucked inside, safe and warm, until the winter’s end.

Garter snakes jumble together in dens, with thousands, like I’m talking upwards of EIGHT THOUSAND other snakes all piled on top of each other. Honestly, that sounds like something straight out of a horror movie to me and that is one den I truly hope to never stumble into.

Animals that hibernate may occasionally wake up to eat or drink but then they fall back asleep in their dens and the frequency of that behavior depends on the animal.

But now, let’s talk specifically about bears.

Only bears who live in colder climates hibernate and the length of their hibernation depends on how long the cold weather lasts. Bears in Mexico may only hibernate for a few days or weeks while bears in Alaska may hibernate for upwards of 6 months. Polar bears, though they live in cold climates, don’t hibernate at all because their food sources don’t change in the winter. However,  they may “den,” which is where they hunker down in one spot for a while. When we talk about hibernation, it’s mostly black, brown, and grizzly bears that we’re thinking of.

Bears build hibernation dens in hollow trees, caves, hillside crevices, and under leaves and brush, when they start to feel the cold weather coming and their fall food sources start to disappear, usually in late November to December, but it varies depending on where the bear lives. It usually takes a bear close to a week to build a proper den. They may go so far as to excavate an area and cover the ground with bedding material such as spruce boughs. These dens usually include a sleeping chamber and a small tunnel from the chamber to the entrance giving the bear a little privacy and a chance for a proper warning should an outsider enter. They generally don’t hibernate in the same location two years in a row. 

Unlike some animals that save and store food for hibernation, bears eat as much as they can in the late summer and fall, really packing on the pounds and storing that energy away as best they can. A female bear will wake in January or February to give birth to cubs if she’s pregnant. She’ll then go back into a form of semi-hibernation for several more weeks: she’ll move quite a bit less than normal, preventing her from accidentally hurting her newborn cubs while they stay close and nurse. When they emerge in the spring, bears remain in a “walking hibernation,” stumbling around as they scavenge for berries, insects, nuts, tree sap, branches and roots, salmon, and any animals they can hunt or find the carcasses of. The most dangerous times for humans to run into bears is right before hibernation in the fall or in the spring when they first wake up as they are more desperate for food at these times. However, it’s important not to feed a bear if you find one in your yard as they quickly develop a taste for human food and can become a nuisance or a danger and it may lead to it having to be put down if it becomes a threat.

It should be noted that whether what bears experience is a real “hibernation” is a hotly debated topic. Instead, it’s argued, bears go into something called “torpor” which is essentially “hibernation lite.” They wake up easily, unlike animals in true hibernation, and though their heart rates, breathing rates, and temperatures drop, they don’t drop as much as other hibernating animals. Either way, they spend most of the cold weather sleeping and hidden away just like I’d like to be.

And now to answer everyone’s most burning question, the one you’ve probably stuck around for this long. No, for the most part, hibernating or “toporing” bears don’t poop. They don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom, actually. NOT AT ALL! No poop for months! As extraordinary as this sounds, it obviously makes sense that if they have nothing going into their bodies during this time, they’d also have nothing coming out. But still. No pooping at all during hibernation? Nope, none.

Now, bears tend to hibernate alone unless they’re mama bears, in which case the babies are born during the hibernation period like I mentioned before or they may have young cubs hibernating with them if they birthed the previous year, but other than that, bears are pretty solitary sleepers.

A bear’s breath during hibernation may drop from 6-10 breaths per minute to only 1 breath every 45 seconds and their heart rate drops from 40-50 beats per minute to only 8-19 beats per minute during hibernation.They can lose between 25-40% of their body weight during this time.

A 2011 study published by BMC Physiology used cardiac monitors and radio monitors to measure a number of black bears’ heart rates and activity levels. Scientists found that if they approached the entrances to a hibernating bear’s den, the animal seemed to sense them, no matter how quiet they tried to be and their heart rates increased. The scientists chose not to find out what happened if they woke the bears fully from their hibernation, which is probably better for them and we all just have to assume that waking a hibernating bear would not result in an ideal situation.

Instead, we just have to wait patiently for them to wake up on their own come spring.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Facts to Relax and if so, please give this video a thumbs up and share it with anyone else you might think would enjoy it. If you want to come back and learn more new things with me while we color a relaxing picture together, please subscribe and check back frequently for new videos. Until next time, may you stay safe, warm, and happy out there while we don’t hibernate. Bye!