Over the past three years, a CSU professor working with Pennsylvania State University researchers to discover reasons behind hibernation patterns in small mammals found a possible link to climate change.
After years of small mammal hibernation research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, CSU biology professor Greg Florant began conducting experiments to determine whether genetics or environment have more effect on hibernation.
Florant teamed up with the PSU Biology Department to subject woodchucks from three climate regions around the U.S. to the same temperature for the length of a single hibernation season.
“Changing ambient temperatures could have deleterious affects on the physiology, and therefore the survival of these species, which rely on these temperatures for reproductive success,” Florant said.
Florant, along with his junior researcher Ashley Fenn, collected woodchucks from South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maine, and began what Florant called a “common garden experiment,” placing the animals in identical conditions with the same temperature of five degrees.
Last fall, the woodchucks were put into the experiment with food selection and temperature mimicking their natural environment. In October, the temperature was dropped to match Colorado’s winter temperature at 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
To monitor the body temperature of the animals throughout the experiment, temperature data loggers were inserted in their abdomens.
Their food intake is also monitored throughout their hibernation period, and recorded to analyze with the body temperature results at the end of the experiment.
Fenn, the primary researcher on this experiment, collects the data and monitors the animals throughout the experiment.
In March, when the experiment ends, Fenn will analyze the data.
“These experiments are designed to see if animals from different latitudes change their hibernation because of a change in temperature, or if they stay the same,” Fenn said.
After the hibernation period ends, the animals will be killed for samples of their fatty acids.
With the data collected from this experiment, the researchers can determine the effects of food consumption on hibernation, Fenn said.
Within a month, the animals will wake up and when they do, Florant and Fenn will retrieve the body temperature data and start analysis on the results.
The research obtained from this experiment will help the researchers understand the effects of genetics and environment in hibernation.
This research is also important, as it may explain how changes in environments worldwide will affect these animals.
But Florant also said there are environmental changes, like precipitation levels, that also affect hibernation patterns. Further research following these experiments will guide scientists to determine which environmental factors cause fluctuation hibernation.
“Depending on the data, the clarity of the impact of ambient temperature and global climate changes on these animals will begin to be discovered,” Florant said.
If the animals adapt to their surroundings, changing their sleeping patterns to suit their environments, it may mean that hibernation is guided more by environment than genetics.
But if they maintain their past patterns without regard for the change in ambient temperature, Florant said, it could mean that genetics play the dominant role in hibernation behavior.
Staff writer Alexandra Sieh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.