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Biology | Physiology | Zoology


Hibernation is characterized by prolonged periods of inactivity with concomitantly low nutrient intake, conditions that would typically result in muscle atrophy combined with a loss of oxidative fibers. Yet, hibernators consistently emerge from winter with very little atrophy, frequently accompanied by a slight shift in fiber ratios to more oxidative fiber types. Preservation of muscle morphology is combined with down-regulation of glycolytic pathways and increased reliance on lipid metabolism instead. Furthermore, while rates of protein synthesis are reduced during hibernation, balance is maintained by correspondingly low rates of protein degradation. Proposed mechanisms include a number of signaling pathways and transcription factors that lead to increased oxidative fiber expression, enhanced protein synthesis and reduced protein degradation, ultimately resulting in minimal loss of skeletal muscle protein and oxidative capacity. The functional significance of these outcomes is maintenance of skeletal muscle strength and fatigue resistance, which enables hibernating animals to resume active behaviors such as predator avoidance, foraging and mating immediately following terminal arousal in the spring.