Two Bat Species Found Hibernating in Warm Temperatures

March 16, 2015 / Israel, Asia
The Greater Mouse-tailed bat.

The Greater Mouse-tailed bat. Photo by Jigar Parmar/WikiMedia

The discovery of bats hibernating at warm and constant temperatures, a first for mammals, have led scientists to reconsider areas once thought as unlikely for hibernation.

In research published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Tel Aviv University researchers found found two species of the mouse-tailed bat (Rhinopoma microphyllum and Rhinopoma Cystops) hibernating at the unusually warm and constant temperature of 68°F (20°C) in caves in Israel’s Great Rift Valley.

Until this discovery, the Middle East, with temperate winters, was thought of as an unlikely host for hibernating mammals.

From October to February, these bats were discovered semi-conscious, breathing only once every 15-30 minutes, with extremely low energy expenditures.

Hibernation in mammals is known to occur at much lower temperatures, allowing the animal to undergo many physiological changes, including decreased heart rate and body temperature. But we have found these bats maintain a high body temperature while lowering energy expenditure levels drastically. We hypothesize that these caves, which feature a constant high temperature during winter, enable these subtropical species to survive on the northernmost edge of their world distribution. Professor Noga Kronfeld-Schor, Chair of the Department of Zoology

The researchers monitored the activity of the bats during this period and found that they neither fed nor drank, even on warm nights when other bat species were active in the same caves. The researchers used heat-sensitive transmitters to measure the bats’ skin temperature in the caves. Then in the laboratory, they measured the bats’ metabolic rates and evaporative water loss at different ambient temperatures.

The bats’ average skin temperature in the caves was found to be about 71.6°F (22°C). Both bat species reached their lowest metabolic rates at about 68°F (20°C)—the same temperature of the caves. During hibernation, the bats also exhibited long periods of suspended exhalation.

Until recently, it was believed that there was no mammalian hibernation in Israel, apart from hedgehogs. But this discovery leads us to believe there may be others we don’t know about. Scientists haven’t been looking for incidences of hibernation at warm temperatures. This is a new direction for us.

The second main finding is that hibernating animals don’t need to lower their body temperatures in order to lower their energy expenditure. These bats exhibited dramatic metabolic depression at warm body temperatures in the hottest caves in the desert. Professor Noga Kronfeld-Schor, Chair of the Department of Zoology

The researchers found that the bats, like camels, flare their nostrils to conserve water. A month before hibernating, they also changed their diets from unsaturated to saturated fats, feeding only on queen ants with wings to gain a 50 percent increase in body mass.

The researchers are further exploring the importance of heated caves for the conservation of these species.

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