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Sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) Project Nr. P 33918

Hibernation is an extreme adaptation of some mammalian species to survive cold winter seasons or other unfavourable environmental conditions. In so-called torpor phases during hibernation the metabolism is extremely reduced, which causes the body temperature to drop to the level of the ambient temperature, reaching even zero degrees centigrade. Heartrate and breathing during torpor are minimized. Also, the activity and blood flow in the brain is strongly reduced. Phases of torpor last for several days or weeks and are interrupted by warming-up phases, so-called arousals, which last only several hours.

We plan to investigate the effects of torpor and hibernation on the memory retention and cognition of animals. Do hibernators have to learn their surroundings every year anew? Do they recognise group members and relatives after hibernation? Earlier studies did not show a clear picture but pointed to some negative effects of torpor. Until today it is not entirely clear why torpor bouts are interrupted by arousals. Are arousals important to activate brain functions like memory retention and cognition? In several experiments we plan to investigate in detail whether factors such as frequency of arousals, minimum body temperature, and duration of hibernation, affect memory retention and cognition in hibernators.

We have chosen the edible dormouse (Glis glis) as our study species. This species is very interesting for several reasons. With a maximum hibernation duration of 11 months, they hold the world record in naturally occurring hibernation durations. Thus, if hibernation has some negative effects, we would expect to observe them in edible dormice. On the other hand, dormice show an arboreal lifestyle, which is known to be challenging in terms of spatial orientation and cognition.

For our studies of these relationships we will use innovative techniques. We plan to implant miniature data-loggers into the animals, which can store activity and body temperature for two years. This allows us to closely follow seasonal changes in body temperatures and activity patterns. The dormice will be trained to find their way out of a maze. Further, they have to learn to jump on correct symbols to enter their home nest-box, the typical sleeping site for edible dormice. The success in these tests will be controlled after hibernation. Further, we will keep groups of dormice together in large enclosures to investigate via social network analysis, whether group formation is affected by hibernation.

Project start: February 2021