Hummingbirds use overnight ‘hibernation’ to prep for migration

A ruby-throated hummingbird.
New research finds hummingbirds can use a hibernation-like state to help bulk up for migration season (Photo by Ken Jones).

Alexa Battler

Hummingbirds’ metabolisms are so high that they face an ever-looming threat­­ — running out of energy and dropping dead. That’s why the birds evolved a physiological trick, an ability at the centre of a new study from U of T Scarborough’s Welch Lab.

It’s called torpor. Essentially, hummingbirds can enter a state similar to hibernation for the night, and new research suggests they can use this strategically. When they enter torpor, hummingbirds drop their body temperature 20 degrees or more and lower their metabolic rate up to 95 per cent.

A hummingbird at regular temperature and in torpor
Like hibernation, torpor involves severely lowering metabolism and temperature. Unlike hibernation, torpor is short-term (Submitted photo).

“They're basically shutting off at night and then just waking up in the morning like they arose from the dead,” says Erich Eberts, a PhD candidate at U of Scarborough and author of the study into torpor and hummingbirds.

Eberts has spent three years trying to determine the rules of torpor; namely, when will a hummingbird use it and how much energy does it have when it does? He was shocked at how clear the numbers were.

“I wondered if he would observe enough instances of torpor to tell what the patterns were,” says Kenneth Welch, associate professor in the department of biological sciences. “About halfway through that first summer, he was getting birds going into torpor almost every night. But not long after, he said, ‘The birds are suddenly doing something very different.’”

The rules of torpor

Torpor in hummingbirds does follow rules — seasonal ones. In early- and mid-summer, when male hummingbirds stay light and agile to defend their turf and court mates, they use torpor to survive “energy emergencies.” Eberts’ study determined this emergency state kicks in when their fat levels drop below five per cent of their body mass.

“These data help simplify this almost nebulous question of when hummingbirds use torpor; it's when they hit this emergency level of fat during the night,” Eberts says. “But the really interesting part was that the five-per-cent threshold essentially disappeared in late summer right before the migration period.”

Eberts’ study found that when it’s time to migrate, the birds will enter torpor at high body fat ratios, even up to 40 per cent. By eating more during the day and using torpor at night, the birds can better prepare for the journey south. Researchers have observed hummingbirds fattening up before migration before, but whether it was due to torpor was unconfirmed.

“Hummingbirds can use torpor in different contexts to support their seasonal energy demands. It's this really versatile energy manipulation mechanism,” Eberts says. “We were also able to show that they can fatten up more if they use the torpor more.”

Measuring big changes in tiny birds

A ruby-throated hummingbird.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds spend early summer in eastern North America, then migrate to Central America come late summer (Photo by iStock). 

Eberts studied 16 male ruby-throated hummingbirds (female birds, when nesting, rarely enter torpor to keep chicks warm) in the vivarium at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research at Western University with co-author Chris Guglielmo. Before the birds went to sleep, he used a QMR machine, which works like an MRI that generates numbers instead of images, to measure body fat. The birds were then placed into a respirometry chamber to measure oxygen use and how quickly they used their fat. A steep drop in metabolism and body temperature indicated they were entering torpor.

Eberts’ study shows that torpor is more than an emergency failsafe — hummingbirds can use it to meet different energy needs.

"If evolution has solved this problem of dealing with energy emergencies in different animals, then maybe we can learn about flexibility in the rules for drastically shutting down metabolism," Welch says. "From the human-centered perspective, we'd love to be able to put astronauts into torpor for, say, their journey to Mars."

Eberts is now looking into the effect temperature has on the five-per-cent fat threshold hypothesis. He’s also examining whether ages and sexes of hummingbirds impact their use of torpor.  

“There's somewhat of a debate on how common torpor is in birds in general, so considering the flexibility of torpor use is important for more broadly understanding the scope of torpor use in other animals,” he says.