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Protein Use and Muscle-Fiber Changes in Free-Ranging, Hibernating Black Bears

Tinker, Daniel B.
Harlow, H. J.
Beck, T. D. I.
Studies of the metabolic and physiological changes that bears undergo during hibernation have, for the most part, supported the paradigm that bears use only fatty tissues as a metabolic substrate during hibernation. This study was performed to document the extent of protein loss and alteration of muscle-fiber characteristics of selected muscles in black bears during winter dormancy. Muscle biopsies were removed from the gas trocnemius and biceps femoris from seven free-ranging female black bears on the Uncompahgre Plateau in west-central Colorado. Six of the seven bears produced cubs during the hibernating season. Muscle samples were collected from the left hind limb shortly after bears entered their dens (fall), and additional samples were collected from the right hind limb just prior to bears leaving their dens (spring). Protein concentration, fast- and slow-twitch muscle-fiber ratios and muscle-fiber cross-sectional areas, and citrate synthase activity were measured in the laboratory. While protein concentration decreased in both muscles during the hibernation period, it was lower than predicted for lactating females. In addition, muscle-fiber number and cross-sectional area were unchanged in these muscles, suggesting only limited muscle atrophy. In support of these observations, there was a moderate but significant increase in the proportion of fast-twitch fibers only in the biceps femoris, with a concomitant decrease in citrate synthase activity, but no alteration of the fiber ratio in the gastrocnemius during hibernation. These findings suggest that hibernating bears, particularly lactating females, do use some protein, in concert with fat catabolism, as a metabolic substrate and as a source of water. However, the extent of this protein use is moderate and is associated with limited alteration of muscle structure, characteristic of disuse atrophy.
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