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Hibernating bears yield surprises

A study of black bears found that unlike other hibernators, they keep their body temperatures high despite reducing their use of oxygen. Unlocking that secret could benefit human medical science.
A study of black bears found that unlike other hibernators, they keep their body temperatures high despite reducing their use of oxygen. Unlocking that secret could benefit human medical science. (Brian Wallace/juneau Empire)
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Friday, February 18, 2011

In the woods of Alaska, five black bears snoozed all winter while researchers recorded every detail of their slow-motion daily drama for the first time ever.

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It turns out that unlike dozens of other hibernating mammals, the bears maintained a high body temperature throughout five months of inactivity.

And when the bears emerged in mid-April, they stayed groggy, with their metabolic rate remaining at about half that of summer levels for two to three weeks.

Brian Barnes, director of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said the research, unveiled Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, could one day aid patients with strokes and serious injuries.

"If we can uncover the way hibernators turn down their demand for oxygen, you can imagine developing a therapy . . . to put someone in stasis, a protected state," Barnes said. "That would give you more time. It would expand the 'golden hour' where it's critical to reach medical care to a golden day or a golden week."

- Brian Vastag

DVIDEO ON WASHINGTONPOST.COM: An infrared camera captures an Alaskan black bear in deep hibernation. That and a graphic explaining the bears' hibernation can be seen at wapo.st/bearstudy.


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