New research explores the effect of winter dormancy on cold-blooded cognition

January 12, 2017, University of Lincoln
New research explores the effect of winter dormancy on cold-blooded cognition
Credit: University of Lincoln

Unlike mammals, amphibians who rest up during the winter do not forget the memories they made beforehand – this is the surprising discovery of new scientific research.

The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that the processes involved in winter dormancy may have a fundamentally different impact on in amphibians and mammals.

Researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, and two universities in Vienna, Austria, discovered that brumation – the period of winter dormancy that is observed in cold-blooded , similar to the process of hibernation in mammals – does not seem to adversely affect the memory of salamanders.

This key finding differs dramatically from previous studies of mammals, which show that hibernation often causes animals to forget some of the memories they formed prior to their period of inactivity.

Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, led the study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

Dr Wilkinson said: "Long-term torpor is an adaptive strategy that allows animals to survive harsh winter conditions. However, the impact that this has on cognitive function is poorly understood. We know that in mammals, hibernation causes reduced synaptic activity and can cause them to lose some of the memories they formed prior to hibernation, but the effect of brumation on memory has been unexplored, until now."

The researchers trained twelve salamanders to navigate a maze and remember the path they needed to take to reach a reward. Half of the animals were then placed into brumation for 100 days, while the other half remained under normal keeping conditions.

A post-brumation memory retention test revealed that animals from both conditions recalled how to navigate the maze.

"We demonstrated that each of the animals solved the task using memory, rather than sensory cues such as smell of the reward, and we're therefore confident that the period of brumation did not impact on their ability to remember," Anne Hloch, another author on the paper explained. "For these animals, memory retention is essential for survival as it allows them to recall important information about the environment, such as the location of food and the presence of predators."

The researchers suggest that the differences in retention observed between and amphibians could be caused by their different learning and memory processes, or the nature of their torpor. Mammals regularly rouse from their and enter intervals of sleep, whereas cold-blooded animals are dependent on the temperature of their surroundings during brumation and are therefore forced to stay torpid until temperatures rise.

Explore further: Less sensitive temperature regulation a key to hibernation-like torpor

More information: Anna Wilkinson et al. The effect of brumation on memory retention, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/srep40079

Related Stories

First discovery of a hibernating primate outside Madagascar

December 3, 2015

Up to now, three species of lemurs on Madagascar were the only primates known to hibernate. Researchers at Vetmeduni Vienna in Austria, now show for the first time that another primate species that lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, ...

Could humans hibernate?

March 16, 2016

On cold, dark days it is tempting to imagine shutting yourself away until the warmer weather returns. Many animals do just that by entering a state known as torpor, which reduces their bodily functions to a minimum and uses ...

Scientists uncover secrets of hibernation

November 7, 2014

For hibernating mammals, the pre-winter months are a race against time to accumulate enough energy reserves to last until spring. Offspring born late in the year have much less time to achieve this. Scientists from the Research ...

Braving the cold to understand what makes squirrels tick

January 6, 2015

For most of us, our day begins with an alarm of some sort. We work, eat, and play, all on some sort of a schedule. While our world is dictated by mechanical clocks, the schedule of the non-human animal kingdom is largely ...

Recommended for you

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.