While I was working on black bears in the Yaak for my Masters degree, I had the pleasure of cooperating with Dr. Ralph Nelson from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Nelson was studying hibernation in bears for a variety of human-related reasons, not the least of which was to assist NASA with sending man to Mars. The theory was that if we could induce hibernation in people, we could therefore select astronauts that were somewhat rotund and put them to sleep for 6 months while we sent them off through space. Not only would this alleviate long periods of boredom, but it would also greatly reduce the amount of necessary resources such as food and fuel.
Dr. Nelson had several black bears in captivity in Minnesota that he was studying and from which he collected blood and urine samples. He wanted to know if various parameters such as proteins and hormone levels were similar in wild bears. Dr. Nelson and one of his assistants joined me in the Yaak in March of 1988, where we entered the dens of a number of radio-collared bears that I was monitoring. We took snowmobiles to wherever the bears were denning, tranquilized them, and drew blood and urine samples for later analysis. To my knowledge, researchers have yet to identify what exactly triggers hibernation, but they have found a number of things that can be hugely beneficial for people.
For one thing, bears are able to recycle their nitrogenous waste (urea) and reconvert it back into protein, or muscle mass. Bears have microbes in their gut that converts urea into a form of nitrogen they can use to make new amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Imagine doing nothing for 5 or 6 months and you still have the same amount of muscle as before! This has huge implications for patients on dialysis, whose kidneys are failing and must have their blood cleansed (nitrogen removed) by a machine.
Another thing they discovered is that bears do not experience osteoporosis, or weakening of the bones. Again, if you or I were bedridden for a couple of months, our bones would begin to weaken due to a loss of calcium. This is also a problem with space travel where astronauts do not put pressure on their bones due to a lack of gravity. Researchers have discovered that calcium lost from the bones of bears during hibernation is recycled and re-deposited, resulting in no net loss or strength!
In order for bears to successfully hibernate and reproduce, they must put on very large stores of fat, which are then lost. This process is repeated yearly. Obese people with excess fat often exhibit problems with diabetes and heart disease. Again, bears exhibit no such issues. For patients exhibiting problems with gall stones, scientists have isolated a compound called Ursodiol, which is found in bear bile and is produced by the gall bladder. This compound has since been reproduced synthetically and is currently used by doctors to dissolve cholesterol-laden gall stones and to treat certain liver diseases.
As time goes on, it is likely even more fascinating aspects of bear physiology will be discovered. It will be interesting to see what’s next!