Hibernating Animals Suffer Dangerous Wakeup Calls Due to Warming

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
February 2, 2007

Punxsutawney Phil—the groundhog of Groundhog Day fame—emerged from his stump-shaped shelter this morning and didn't see his shadow, traditionally signaling an early spring.

Sun-worshipping humans might welcome the news, but for groundhogs and other hibernating animals, a longer winter could be a blessing.

A recent trend toward increasingly mild winters is disrupting normal hibernation patterns for many high-latitude and high-elevation species—and in some cases it may be a matter of life or death.

From marmots in the Rocky Mountains to bears in the Moscow Zoo, animals are spending less time napping. The change may be placing some species fatally out of synch with their environment.

When animals hibernate they're able to conserve the energy stored in their fat during periods when food is scarce. So when they are abnormally active, they risk using up their stored energy before they can replace it.

(See "Polar Bears Suffering as Arctic Summers Come Earlier, Study Finds" [September 21, 2006].)

Born Too Late

In England the warmest winter on record has left young hedgehogs at risk.

Probably confused by changing climate patterns, hedgehog mothers gave birth relatively late in the year. As a result, their pups did not have time to put on sufficient weight to hibernate successfully and are now starving.

And dormice, small rodents known for their six-month-long siestas, now hibernate five weeks less than they did two decades ago, Italian scientists report.

For some species a long winter sleep may already be a thing of the past.

Researchers in Spain recently announced that European brown bears have stopped hibernating altogether in the northern Cantabrian Mountains.

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