Feb. 2, 2000 FORT COLLINS -- Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, is the same date as a centuries-old European Christian festival called "Candlemas," a time when celebrants lit candles and anticipated the eventual coming of spring.
It also occurs about the middle of calendar winter--a hedge for later European farmers, who decided if a hedgehog emerged from its burrow and saw its shadow that would ensure six more weeks of winter. German farmers brought the tradition to the United States and settled on the groundhog as their meteorological guide.
Greg Florant, Colorado State University professor of biology, takes a slightly different tack on the matter. Florant, who specializes in the metabolism of hibernating animals, has been studying American marmots (a groundhog cousin).
If a groundhog, marmot or other hibernating mammal wakens, it's probably because they've produced too much of two key fatty acids that are needed, in moderate amounts, for successful hibernation.
Florant will travel to Austria this spring under the auspices of a Senior Fulbright Research Scholarship to continue his investigation of fat and prostaglandin metabolism in mammals, particularly alpine marmots. Working with Walter Arnold, director of Vienna University's Institute of Wildlife Ecology, Florant will study changes in the lipid (fatty acid) metabolism of the animal and how particular lipid molecules may play a role in biological signaling in cells.
Florant has identified essential fatty acids called linoleic (18:2n-6) and linolenic acid (18:3n-3) as key molecules for successful hibernation. Both fatty acids are necessary for animals to hibernate, during which their body temperatures drop and metabolism slows. Despite periodic warming to normal body temperature levels, the animals return to hibernation for a total of up to seven months.
His research shows that larger amounts of linolenic acid can make the animal active and cause it to feed when it's supposed to be hibernating. He speculates that linolenic acid levels in American groundhogs affect whether they emerge from hibernation early, rather than the presence or absence of their shadows.
Marmots and other hibernating animals spend the warm season gorging on leafy plants, seeds and nuts that contain varying amounts of these fatty acids. Autumnal temperature drops trigger a series of physiological events that can cause hibernation.
The 2000 Fulbright award is Florant's second and one of only two given to American scholars to work in Austria. He also received a Fulbright for research in France in 1983-84.
Florant, a specialist in animal physiology, received his doctorate from Stanford University in 1978 and bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1973. He taught at Swarthmore College and Temple University before joining Colorado State in 1995.
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