Contrary to many adorable children’s stories, hibernation is so not sleeping. And most animals can’t do both at the same time.
So what’s with Madagascar’s dwarf lemurs? The fat-tailed dwarf lemur slows its metabolism into true hibernation, and stays there even when brain monitoring shows it’s also sleeping. But two lemur cousins, scientists have just learned, don’t multitask. Like other animals, they have to rev their metabolisms out of hibernation if they want a nap.
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Hibernating animals, in the strictest sense, stop regulating body temperature, says Peter Klopfer, cofounder of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C. “They become totally cold-blooded, like snakes.” By this definition, bears don’t hibernate; they downregulate, dropping their body temperatures only modestly, even when winter den temperatures sink lower. And real hibernation lasts months, disqualifying short-termers such as subtropical hummingbirds. The darting fliers cease temperature regulation and go truly torpid at night. “You can pick them out of the trees,” Klopfer says.
The fat-tailed dwarf lemur, Cheirogaleus medius, was the first primate hibernator discovered, snuggling deep into the softly rotting wood of dead trees. “You’d think they’d suffocate,” he says. But their oxygen demands plunge to somewhere around 1 percent of usual. As trees warm during the day and cool at night, so do these lemurs. When both a tree and its inner lemur heat up, the lemur’s brain activity reflects mammalian REM sleep.
Klopfer expected much the same from two other dwarf lemurs from an upland forest with cold, wet winters. There, C. crossleyi and C. sibreei spend three to seven months curled up underground, below a thick cushion of fallen leaves. “If you didn’t know better, you might think they were dead because they’re cold to the touch,” Klopfer says.
Unlike the tree-hibernators, the upland lemurs take periodic breaks from hibernating to sleep, Klopfer, the Lemur Center’s Marina Blanco and colleagues report in the August Royal Society Open Science. The lemurs generated some body heat of their own about once a week, which is when their brains showed signs of sleep (REM-like and slow-wave). “My suspicion is that sleep during torpor is only possible at relatively high temperatures, above 20º Celsius,” Klopfer says. Sleep may be important enough for cold-winter lemurs to come out of the storybook “long winter’s nap.”