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Thursday, January 21, 2021

How polar bears and ground squirrels would had helped us survive the lockdown

Why governments needed to consult hibernators to give humans needed enough time to fatten up for the indefinite period of inactivity owing to COVID-19

Written by Ranjit Lal | December 27, 2020 6:30:20 am
Rodents — from the great clan of ground squirrels — and other insectivores also hibernate.

To sleep through bone-chilling winters is, alas, the luck of several animal species and insects, for hundreds of years. To qualify for true hibernation, the body temperature and the heart rate must drop as the animal goes into a deep, deep sleep. By this yardstick, it is argued that polar bears do not technically hibernate but go into a state of torpor for the winter months after stuffing their faces and putting on thick layers of pure fat before snuggling down under the snow. But polar-bear moms also give birth to their cubs at this time — and all babies need warmth and milk, which the mama bear has stocked up on.

Rodents — from the great clan of ground squirrels — and other insectivores also hibernate. While hiding nuts and acorns galore in caches all over their territory, they are extra watchful. Keeping an eye out for potential thieves — other squirrels and birds — they pretend to bury the nuts in a particular place, while keeping them stuffed in their cheeks and hiding them elsewhere when the coast is clear. A species of woodpecker, too, rams in hundreds of acorns and nuts in tree’s boles, to feast on in winter. The rationale behind hibernation is simple: winters in the northern hemisphere are ferociously frigid and all sources of food vanish.

If you are unable to escape to warmer climes — by migrating on foot or by air (which is what a lot of birds do) or sea, you simply find a den and go to sleep: for months, if necessary. Apart from the fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar, no primate hibernates: no creature living in the tropics needs to. Some, like frogs and toads, do however “aestivate”, disappearing deep underground during the parched dry summers, because six-feet under, it is still cool and moist, which is what they need so as to avoid death by desiccation.

Imagine, as the days get colder, darker and depressing (causing SAD — seasonal affective disorder in people in the frigid north), you first spend the autumn months pigging it out at “eat all you can” buffets: helping yourself to every sinful fat-oozing delicacy. Then you furnish your bed with piles of quilts and blankets, get into your pyjamas, wriggle into bed and sink into a deep, peaceful sleep — for the next several months. Your metabolism slows down, and no, you don’t have to get up thrice every night to pee. In the process, you actually lose much of the horrendous flab you had put on as your body burns up all the stored fat and you eventually emerge looking trim and fit! (Polar-bear moms can lose up to one-third their body weight over winter.)

This is one get-slim regime that could become a rage if marketed right — just sleep softly, love! For the next several months, you’ve no cares or worries or bills to pay, just hopefully sweet dreams to revel in. And then, when you finally yawn and stretch and awake, the sun is out and the first flowers have begun to bloom. Surprise, you may even have a lovely brand-new baby by your side! No doubt you’re ravenous, so, off you go to the supermarket and the world is a wonderful place again!

As usual the denizens of the animal kingdom thought of this first. And it would be such a perfect solution for so many of our problems too. Imagine, if the populations of the entire northern hemisphere went to sleep between November and April, the kind of savings we would make — pollution would drop drastically, there’d be no need to ravage the earth of its precious resources, fossil fuels would last another 100 years, there’d be no murders, hate-speeches or weddings that killjoys can lynch at. Yes, maybe some more babies, but then everyone loves babies! And, maybe, those living in the sweaty tropical south could do the same in summer, go to sleep between May and October (though, of course, they’d demand air-conditioning so that could be an issue!)

Actually in 2020, we did take a shot at hibernating, though as usual we went about it in a totally ham-fisted manner. Giving 1.3 billion people a four-hour notice to retire from social activity for an indeterminate period of time is not the way to assure them of a good rest. Businesses and livelihoods collapsed, educational institutions, sports, travel and entertainment shut down, and the mantra became “work from home”. We, of course, took advantage of this COVID-coma syndrome — a marvellous excuse to shirk work and get rid of vast numbers of people who needed to work. “We can’t deliver since we’re working with only 10 per cent of our staff, because the rest are tramping along expressways, back to the boondocks.”

Our great leaders should have taken the cue from polar bears and given people enough time to fatten up before they battened down the hatches on their heads. More deviously, they pushed through rapacious legislation without due diligence, because we — the duly diligent — were hibernating on their orders.

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