Certain animals, such as the American black bear, exhibit hibernation, a temporary, sleep-like torpor during cold, winter months (see Tyson, 2000). The torpor involved in hibernation is “a state of self-induced reduction in body temperature and metabolic rate” to conserve energy (Harder, 2007; Fury, n.d.). Evolutionists are unsure why animals hibernate (see Luis and Hudson, 2006). How hibernation works remains a mystery. Harder reported for Science News Online:
Researchers still don’t understand how natural hibernators put themselves into torpor or how they bring themselves out of it. But new studies are peeling away the outer layers of that mystery. Far from succumbing to hypothermia, it seems, hibernators exploit it. Experiments are also revealing how animal tissues evade the damage that comes from inactivity and low blood flow, and suggesting that relatively few genes are involved in torpor and hibernation. That’s an auspicious sign for researchers who strive to manipulate the process (2007).
Physiologist Hannah V. Carey, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, added: “These animals have got it right. They know how to use hypothermia to their advantage” (quoted in Harder). Hibernating animals are resistant to tissue breakdown that would kill other animals exposed to frigid temperatures.
The arctic ground squirrel, for example, hibernates over half the year and adopts the lowest body temperature ever measured in a mammal (“Arctic...,” 2006). Researchers at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks have shown that the squirrel’s body temperature drops below freezing, a condition known as supercooling (“Arctic...”). Every two to three weeks, while still in a state of torpor, the hibernating squirrel shivers and shakes for 12 to 15 hours, warming its body to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (“Arctic...”).
Researchers hope to reduce the danger of certain tedious medical procedures, particularly when ill or injured human patients are involved, by inducing torpor. Harder reported that “recent findings in animals point the way toward medical shortcuts that might mimic in people the effects of torpor, although these measures don’t exactly reproduce the biological state” (2007).
In 2005, “[u]sing a natural chemical humans and other animals produce in their bodies, scientists...for the first time induced hibernation in mammals, putting mice into a state similar to suspended animation for up to six hours and then bringing them back to normal life” (Britt, 2005). This achievement, “the first demonstration of ‘hibernation on demand’ in a mammal, ultimately could lead to new ways to treat cancer and prevent injury and death from insufficient blood supply to organs and tissues” (“Buying Time...,” 2005). The mice required no freezing. Instead, “the rodents breathed air laced with hydrogen sulfide, a chemical produced naturally in the bodies of humans and other animals. Within minutes, they stopped moving and soon their cell functions approached total inactivity” (Britt). Mark Roth, affiliate professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington School of Medicine and leader of the mice investigation, said: “Manipulating this metabolic mechanism for clinical benefit potentially could revolutionize treatment for a host of human ills related to ischemia, or damage to living tissue from lack of oxygen” (quoted in “Buying Time...,” 2005).
Humans have gone essentially cold-blooded automatically in some emergency situations, so developing a reliable torporific procedure seems advantageous (see Britt). Clinical applications of induced metabolic hibernation could include treating severe blood-loss injury, hypothermia, malignant fever, cardiac arrest, and stroke (see “Buying Time...,” 2005). The potential medical benefits also include improving cancer treatment by allowing patients to tolerate higher radiation doses without damaging healthy tissue (“Buying Time...”). Roth commented: “Right now in most forms of cancer treatment we’re killing off the normal cells long before we’re killing off the tumor cells. By inducing metabolic hibernation in healthy tissue we’d at least level the playing field” (quoted in “Buying Time...”). Molecular biologist Sandra Martin, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, admitted that such applications “lie far in the future” (quoted in Harder, 2007).
While animals already “know” how to use hypothermia to their advantage, scientists, the alleged inheritors of millions of years of evolutionary development, are yet to understand the hibernation process well enough to manipulate it in non-hibernating mammals and harness torpor’s advantages. Man continues his quest to understand and apply God’s masterful design. Often, however, he does so while ignoring or denying the very existence of the Designer (Romans 1:19-22). Will multiplying examples of biomimicry open his eyes? Apologetics Press remains committed to offering him every opportunity to see the truth of the Genesis account and its massive implications for human life and spiritual afterlife.
“Arctic Ground Squirrel” (2006), Denali National Park and Preserve, [On-line], URL: http://www.nps.gov/dena/naturescience/arcticgroundsquirrel.htm.
Britt, Robert Roy (2005), “New Hibernation Technique Might Work on Humans,” LiveScience, [On-line], URL: http://www.livescience.com/health/050421_hibernation.html.
“Buying Time Through ‘Hibernation on Demand’: Landmark Finding in Mice May Lead to New Approaches for Cancer and Trauma Care in Humans,” (2005), Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center, [On-line], URL: http://www.fhcrc.org/about/ne/news/2005/04/21/roth.html.
Fury, Amy (no date), “Naturalist Notes: Birds in Winter,” Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, [On-line], URL: http://www.wolf-ridge.org/whats_hap/nat_note_archive/birds_in_ winter.html.
Harder, Ben (2007), “Perchance to Hibernate,” Science News Online, [On-line], URL: http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20070127/bob9.asp.
Luis, A.D. and P.J. Hudson (2006), “Hibernation Patterns in Mammals: a Role for Bacterial Growth?,” Functional Ecology, [On-line], URL: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2435. 2006.01119.x.
Tyson, Peter (2000), “Secrets of Hibernation,” NOVA scienceNow, [On-line], URL: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/satoyama/hibernation.html.