The Animal Only Looks Dead

The narrow hallway is bathed in a warm, red glow. I stare, entranced by the image on the screen, almost hypnotized by its monotony. His tiny fist is curled up into a delicate ball next to his face. His massive tail carefully envelopes his head.IMG_0178

The animal looks dead. But he’s not. The jagged lines moving across the ancient laptop screen confirm this.IMG_0152

In fact, this animal has been like this—utterly motionless—for 96 hours straight. His heart rate is about 12 beats per minute, he can go 15 minutes without taking a single breath, and his body temperature hovers around 59°F. His name is Tanager. He is a fat-tailed dwarf lemur. And he is hibernating.

I write from a hallway constructed out of sienna-hued cinderblock and tinted glass, cluttered by expensive-looking equipment. Dominating the hallway’s small space is “The Beast” tucked neatly in the corner. “The Beast” is our environmental chamber. Designed to control ambient temperature and humidity to a precise degree, unwavering in its onus. It is essentially an oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. An overpriced oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. “The Beast” emits a dull hum that is enough to lull even the most well rested researcher to sleep, betraying its mischievous intentions. Beast, you will not win this one.

The scene before my weary eyes involuntarily elicits nostalgia for the classic film Apollo 13, taking me back to the good ‘ole days when I had ample free time to actually watch movies. The set-up for our study is a mirror image of that legendary space shuttle’s control panel depicted in the film. Outdated equipment, looking like it belongs back in the 1970’s, vomits wires and plastic tubing in jumbled mess. Power strips, connected to cables, litter the floor. I’m willing to bet that NASA shuttles were more organized than this, however.

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Our control panel, as disordered as it appears at first glance, is completely functional and is beautifully serving its purpose. I am watching Tanager’s brain activity in real-time. But it gets better. I am also monitoring his heart rate, respiration, and metabolic rate, while simultaneously watching him curled up in his tiny ball form on-screen. Tanager Television, coming to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Broadcast live, on site, from the Duke Lemur Center.

Scientific research always has a motivation. Sometimes it’s to understand and cure human disease. Sometimes it’s to appreciate how and why the natural world came to be. Sometimes it’s to comprehend a deeply unique biological phenomenon. This study has elements of all three.

One of the principle investigators driving this study, Dr. Andrew Krystal, is a sleep researcher at Duke Medical Center. His main goal is to understand the mysteries of sleep and sleep disorders in humans. Understanding the link between sleep and metabolic rate is crucial for delving into these questions. This is where Tanager comes in. Hibernation is a phenomenon that encompasses both questions surrounding sleep and metabolic rate. How are the two linked? What happens to the brain when metabolic rate is severely depressed, as in hibernation?

In addition, researchers that study hibernation in mammals are on a relentless mission to understand why we see hibernation in some mammal groups, but not other, closely related ones (for example, many ground squirrel species hibernate, but tree squirrels don’t. Why?). Or why we see hibernation appear in very disparate mammal groups (like bears and primates). By doing similar studies in distinct lineages we can begin to figure out if there are common mechanisms present, or if each group has figured out different ways of achieving the same goal: to survive the winter. These questions are Dr. Peter Klopfer, the other principle investigator’s bag of tricks.

Lastly, hibernation is just insanely cool. It has a “wow” factor that is off the charts. Understanding even a tiny piece of the puzzle is enough motivation for me to want to watch a hibernating animal for 13 hours straight, multiple days in a row, tucked away in a dark hallway.

It’s 8:00 p.m. Only a Coleman lantern perched high on a TV stand and a solitary, red ceiling lamp illuminates the tiny hallway where I sit. The rest of the building is dark, the only light coming from the glowing neon green exit signs. Occasionally I hear gurgling noises deep within the bowels of the building, as if a toilet is being flushed. But I’m the only one here. It’s totally creepy…and totally worth it.

Wait. What was that noise?!?

Wait. What was that noise?!?

It’s a jungle out there!


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