Hibernation is a strange concept to most people, even those of us who enjoy a good 10 hours of sleep wake up feeling famished, so how can some animals go to sleep for over 10 weeks without starving to death? Most of us will know from young age that some animals hibernate throughout the winter, but when we're little we also just accepted the fact, and did not ask 'why do animals hibernate?'.
For the most part you can put any action that a wild animal performs down to survival, so it is reasonable to say that animals hibernate to survive. Then again in how many other situations would going to sleep be seen as the best survival option? How is hibernation different from any other prolonged snooze?
Before we go into that though let's quickly cover why hibernation occurs. Animals hibernate for several reasons, and whilst some do so to escape the cold, most will hibernate because of the scarce amount of food during the colder winter months. Starting at the bottom of the food chain, vegetation does not grow when the weather is cold and the sun spends most of its time hidden behind clouds, which means that there will be less food available for herbivores.
Though some herbivores may store some food in preparation for winter, they will not be able to fill a pantry large enough to sustain their normal level of activity for very long, so they hibernate as a means of conserving energy and making what little food they have last. Of course this has a knock on effect, as when there is no prey running about, the predators will be short on food also, so they too will hibernate to prevent themselves from wasting away.
Going back to the question above, is hibernation the same as sleeping? The answer is a resounding no. In fact hibernation is much more similar to meditation, as the way the body acts when hibernating is considerably different to the way it behaves when sleeping; for example when hibernating the body slows right down – heart beat, breathing, metabolism, the lot.
Another difference between sleep and hibernation is that hibernation is not in the least bit relaxing. You simply will not see an animal come out of hibernation, and with a stretch and a yawn spring into action, rather they're more likely to appear lethargic, tired and utterly worn out; to the point that some may even curl up and go to sleep immediately after they come out of hibernation!