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Professor studies groundhog hibernation to benefit humankind

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1/30/2009 —

Residents of Pennsylvania look to the groundhog each February 2 to forecast the weather. According to legend, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; if not, an early spring is predicted. However, understanding what happens during hibernation may have potential benefits for humankind beyond predicting the weather, according to Dr. Stam Zervanos, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Penn State Berks.

Stervanos has been researching the hibernation patterns of the groundhog for twelve years and now he is trying to determine which hibernation characteristics have a genetic basis. The implications are that studying the genes that control metabolic processes could eventually lead to benefits for humankind, including the ability to slow the heart rate during long, complicated surgical procedures.

Over the last few years, Zervanos has been working with researchers from Clemson University in South Carolina and the University of Southern Maine to compare the difference in hibernation patterns in northern versus southern groundhogs. As expected, major differences have been observed: in Maine, they hibernate 175 days from October 19 to April 11; in Pennsylvania, 100 days, from November 17 to February 25; and in South Carolina, 67 days, from December 13 to February 18. Thus, depending on where you live, groundhogs emerge on different days.

Currently, Zervanos is attempting to determine if these variations are environmental or genetic in nature. Groundhogs from the three populations will be transported to Colorado State University, where they will be placed in environmental chambers with constant temperatures. If they maintain the same patterns they exhibited in their native environment, their variations are genetic rather than environmental, and the next step will be to try to identify the gene that controls this characteristic.

"There is a theory that all mammals were able to hibernate in their ancestry," explains Zervanos. "Since we evolved from reptilian ancestors, which were able to hibernate, the logic would seem to say that all mammals have these genes or at least the genes that turn on and off the metabolic processes that control hibernation. If we can track down these controlling genes, then we might be able to apply these characteristics to humans."

As an ecologist, Zervanos studies how animals adapt physiologically to their environments. He has been studying the hibernation patterns of groundhogs since 1996 on a 140-acre plot on the Peiffer Farm of Penn State Berks. He studies free-ranging groundhogs using radio telemetry and data loggers to monitor hourly body temperature. During the first two seasons, straw at the burrow entrances indicated if an animal had exited or entered a burrow, but for the last ten years of the study, infrared motion-triggered cameras were placed at the burrow entrances. These cameras recorded date and time of emergence and also supplied photographs and videos.

To watch a video about Zervanos' research, go to: http://live.psu.edu/youtube/aYov92KzSX8

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