Back to Stories

Hibernation, Torpor, and Embracing the Winter Season

Posted on December 2, 2022

Learn about hibernation, torpor, and how Barret Miller, one of FortWhyte Alive’s fan favourite educators, has learned to embrace the winter season.

Skunk walking on snowy ground.

I will admit winter has not always been my favourite season.

It took years of outdoor learning and fun on staff at FortWhyte Alive before I really embraced the cold. I was envious of animals that migrated or slept away the winter. I wished I could hibernate, like a bear.

I’ve come to realize I was wrong on a few levels. Winter is great, and most mammals – including bears – don’t hibernate. They, along with squirrels, skunks and raccoons instead enter a state of torpor.

Torpor is a period of inactivity during the coldest, hungriest times of the winter, mixed with active times during good weather. This is why we smell active skunks on warm February nights, and squirrels run around most days of the winter during the sunny afternoon, but not during crisp cold snaps.

Red squirrel bent down searching for food on railing.

True hibernation is a winter-long period of deep shut-down; torpor often starts and stops. Hibernation is so profound it’s not accurate to describe it as sleep. You might have a good analogy in your pocket right now; torpor is like locking a cell phone as opposed to shutting it right off waiting through a long restart.

Respiration, heart rate, brain activity, and other biological processes almost stop in a hibernating animal.

A marten sits in a leafless tree looking down through branches.

Among southern Manitoba’s mammals, bats, woodchucks, chipmunks and ground squirrels are the only true hibernators. All of Manitoba’s reptiles and amphibians enter a state of hibernation. These animals seek shelter below the frost line in the ground and wait away the winter. One of FortWhyte’s most common hibernators, the painted turtle, drops its heart rate from 40 beats per minute in the summer sun to one beat per week during hibernation!

Climate change is making hibernation patterns a less reliable winter survival strategy.

Late season warm periods delay hibernation until it’s dangerously cold, and strange spring weather means some animals “power up” before it’s safely warm again.

We might not see them for a few months, but let’s remember the responsibilities we have to all of the natural world, including our hibernating neighbours this winter.

Two painted turtles on plants at edge of water.

Barret Miller is FortWhyte Alive’s resident brewmaster, foraging pro, animal expert, and go to person to answer your nature related questions. When he’s not leading people through our trails he can be found working as our Group & Corporate Services Manager.