When thinking of bears and winter, we immediately think of hibernation. Contrary to popular belief, bears and many animals don't go into hibernation but torpor. Hibernation is when the animal lowers or ceases all body functions such as heart rate, body temp, and metabolism, making it so they "sleep" all of winter. Torpor differs in the sense that they only partially lower those functions, so they will still get up to eat a little and relieve themselves. This means that the warmer it gets, animals that go into torpor come out of their den more often but will continue to stay in torpor.
How do we know when an animal like Val the Black bear is fully out of torpor then? Well just like humans when we wake up in the morning, we appear groggy and tired. If given the option we go back to bed and sleep. Here at the Topeka Zoo, we know when Val and Indie are out of Torpor when they are out and about all day, coming inside to see their Keepers to get food. They also appear more awake and alert, letting us know they have officially come out of Torpor.
Val and Indie aren't the only animals at the Zoo that go into torpor though! They have many neighbors that take a little snooze during these cold months. Animals such as Phoebe the skunk go into torpor digging her own den just like the black bears. The den Val is in currently was dug by Sneak, a previous Bear who used to live here. Val took it over and renovated it to her liking. Since we have never seen Indie dig a den, we built her a wooden den in their inside area and she seems to love it. Other species besides mammals will go into torpor as well, such as native turtles who live in our ponds.
Torpor is something that happens naturally in the wild, it is a way to survive the colder months. Although inside the Topeka Zoo Val and Indie may have more access to food and ways to stay warm through out the winter, we work to help recreate the environment as they would be in the wild. In the wild, there is a lack of food in the winter so they have adapted to go to sleep to survive, here at the Zoo we do modify their diet in the late fall to help them go into that natural cycle. We give them bedding (straw, leaves) so they can start to make their den more comfortable and slowly decrease their food intake to mimic what would happen in the wild. Although, we do keep an eye on them to ensure they are okay, doing daily visually checks on their dens and fence line. We see them out and about every few weeks which enables us to get a good visual health check on them, using an infrared camera when they haven't been out of their den for a while to ensure they are healthy in their den.
Val has been in torpor since late October. A few weeks back though, we spotted Val taking a little break from her torpor to come out and stretch and were able to snap a picture of her! Have you submitted your guess of when you think Val will be out for good? Click the link below to make a guess and see if you win.