Besides their infamous appetite,
Great Smoky Mountain National park bears are also known for
their ability to hibernate during the winter months. Most
park bears make their winter dens high above the forest floor
in the cavities of large trees.
Surprisingly, many scientists say Smoky
Mountain bears dont hibernate at all. To them the park
experience dormancy or deep sleep instead of true hibernation.
Their conclusions are based on comparisons of bears, for this
is true of all bears, with other hibernating mammals whose
temperature and heart rates drop more dramatically than the
Black bears. Southern bears, especially those in lowlands
perhaps support their theory best, as they hibernate for such
a short time in comparison to northern bears. Adding support
to the theory of non-hibernation, Black bears can waken during
the wintertime. They may even go out of their dens during
warmer winter days. Still, the American Black bear population
stays in their dens as much as six months in northern climates.
In fact all bears stay in their state of semi-hibernation
according as the climate in their territory dictates. Brown
and grizzly bears, semi-hibernation can last as long as seven
months, depending upon the severity of the winter and the
location of their territory.
Setting the hibernation debate aside for
a moment, for the purpose of this article, we will call the
Black bears winter snooze hibernation.
Black bears prepare for hibernation by
eating large amounts of food, especially in the late summer
and early fall. A black bear in the Smoky Mountains may gain
as much as 30 pounds a week while their food supply is sufficient
to support them. But, as the food supplies dwindles, the bears
become very tired and begin to look for a place to sleep through
the winter. Although, hibernation dens vary, most Black bears
in the Smoky Mountains prefer hibernating high in the cavities
of trees. There are some park bears however, that prefer to
dig out a den in the earth and line it with dried leaves or
grass. Still others may chose a hollow log for their winter
snooze, while others may have a preference for a particular
cave. A den can be reused from the year before or it can be
hibernation, a Smoky Mountain Black bears metabolism
slows to about half the normal rate, or approximately ten
beats per minute. Their temperature drops as well, but as
mentioned, does not lower as much as other animals that hibernate.
Black bears only lose about six to seven degrees of body heat.
Perhaps this is due to their unusually warm coat and the layers
of fat stored for the winter. During hibernation, bears use
up the body fat they so carefully stored the year before.
Mother bears who give birth in the den can lose up to forty
percent of her weight over the winter while others lose twelve
to thirty percent. As the winter warms into spring, the bears
of the Smoky Mountains waken with renewed appetite.
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