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FIELD NOTES: A long winter's nap

I spent much of the past week on the frozen tundra of northern Indiana, attending my father-in-law’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, made all the more so by the oppressive cold, wind, and snow. Whenever I travel north at this time of year, the provocative question that always pops into my head is, why don’t humans hibernate?  

Hibernation is an adaptation to cold weather that many animals native to colder climates use to survive the winter. When we hear hibernation, we tend to think of bears, but most hibernating animals tend to be smaller with higher metabolic rates. When their ability to find food is diminished, they effectively “downshift” to a lower rate and enter a sleeplike state that lasts until warmer weather triggers an increase in metabolic function.  

Unlike those cold-adapted animals, humans are native to tropical and semitropical regions where food supplies are relatively consistent throughout the year. The migration of humans to colder areas has only happened within the last hundred thousand years or so, not enough time to develop the necessary adaptations for hibernation. More importantly, though, humans had the intelligence to create tools, harness fire, store food and build shelters that allowed them to survive winter conditions without hardship. And since we are talking about humans, if there ever was a branch of the family tree that developed the ability to hibernate, they were likely wiped out in their sleep by their tool-wielding, fire-using neighbors. Or, at least that’s what the anthropologists claim. After spending a few days with high temperatures in the teens and a wind chill in the single digits, I might argue that “without hardship” point. It does beg the question, though, what would human hibernation look like?  

The closest to humans of the hibernating animals in terms of size and diet, Bears add fat in the weeks before they enter hibernation to sustain them through to spring, so it’s logical that a hibernating human would begin putting on weight in late November and add 15 to 20 pounds over the next month.  

Hmm … I guess we’ve already got that part down.  

Next, hibernation would significantly change the way we design and build our houses, which would come to resemble fortified vaults so we could not be robbed or murdered while unconscious. We would put bars or stout steel shutters on our windows and doors in the weeks leading up to hibernation and install elaborate alarm systems, which would be monitored by the “Waky-Wakies,” specialized workers who stay alert all winter to keep things from completely falling apart.  

Christmas would serve as a big blowout “end of consciousness” party. We would all take our decorations down on Dec. 26 and begin cycling down. Skis, skates, and sleds would no longer be great Christmas gifts. By the 28th or 29th, we’d all be asleep in our beds until March or April, when we would celebrate New Year’s Day with a hibernation hangover.  

Some things never change. 

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