Bears reaching for spring willow branches. Photo: Annika Sorjonen / Helsinki Zoo

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In an unusual turn of events, two female bears at Helsinki Zoo, aged 23 and 18, have woken from their winter slumber after just six weeks, marking one of the shortest hibernation periods observed for these animals at the facility. Traditionally, bears at the zoo would hibernate for longer periods, typically awakening in February; however, this year's pattern was distinctly different.

The bears initially stirred from their hibernation in early December, only to return for a brief week-long sleep in February.

This disrupted hibernation cycle comes after a notably long winter, with the spring sunshine now encouraging the bears to spend more time outdoors.

The zoo's bears had settled into hibernation in late October, but the younger bear began to make its presence known by knocking on the door of its winter den in early December. While the older bear showed reluctance to wake, both were eventually allowed outside for brief periods. Despite this, they showed little interest in food and would often return indoors to rest. It's not uncommon for bears to awaken during hibernation to adjust their position, and sometimes even eat vegetables during winter, as observed with the Helsinki Zoo bears.

To support the bears in resuming their hibernation, zookeepers maintained a light diet and a calm environment for them. During the February cold snap, the bears went back to sleep in their dens for a week.

"We can't fully explain this unusual hibernation rhythm. Throughout the winter, the bears appeared very tired. We provided them with carbohydrate-rich berries, which they typically consume in autumn to prepare for hibernation, and added more bedding material to their dens," shared Susan Nuurtila, one of the zookeepers.

With the arrival of March, the bears have begun to venture outside more regularly, and zookeepers have introduced new stimuli for them to explore. Recently, they enjoyed their first small pieces of meat wrapped in paper bags and tied to trees, a treat that was eagerly investigated and consumed. Fresh willow branch tips also proved to be a springtime delicacy, leading to some gentle squabbling between the bears.

This short hibernation contrasts with the previous winter when the bears slept soundly for over three months, losing approximately 50 kilograms, about a quarter of their body weight. This is only the second time that Helsinki Zoo's bears have had such a brief hibernation, with their usual awakening time being in February.

HT

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