Animal Management: The Science of Hibernation

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As the days begin to lengthen and temperatures increase, our rare Hazel dormice (Muscardinus avellanarius), are beginning to show some signs of emerging from their winter’s sleep.

Mr Juniper, Bede’s Head of Animal Management, explained, “This is a vital survival technique when food becomes scarce. Some mammals, like these mice, conserve their energy and survive the cold by entering into a period of inactivity, marked by a slowing down of metabolism, heartbeat, breathing and temperature.

“Dormice seem to be the sleepiest of the mammals which hibernate: we don’t usually see ours from about November until late into the following Spring!”

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Ella, photographed here guarding the Hazel Dormice enclosure, joined Animal Management last September and now rates it as her favourite subject!

Mr Jones, Deputy Head of Animal Management, added, “The ‘Dormouse’ name probably originates from the French ‘dormir’ meaning ‘to sleep’. In France they are actually called 'sleepy mice' or 'log mice' as in ‘to sleep like a log’. In Britain, they are our only native species of dormouse and they are also the only small British mammal to have a furry tail.”

Hibernation or ‘torpor’ has long fascinated scientists. Last year NASA announced that they would research a way to dramatically cut the cost of a human expedition to Mars by putting the crew in extended torpor for 90 to 180 days.

Similarly, the University of Leicester is also investigating torpor, which might just have a link with Alzheimer’s disease, and trauma doctors have managed to revive people with no heartbeat or breath, due to the cold, who have been rescued from snow drifts or icy water.

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Ella with but a few of the recently laid tortoise eggs...

At Bede's meanwhile, where the School is part of the National Hazel Dormice Captive Breeding Programme, excitement is beginning to build about the possibilities for breeding more of these incredible endangered animals.

"Between our Tortoises, which have now laid over 60 eggs, and the Dormice waking up," concluded Mr Juniper, "it seems as if we may now be well and truly entering breeding season!"

 

Learn more about the Bede's Animal Management department >

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