The monito del monte, a species of marsupial, is a captivating mouse-like creature that lives in the forests of Patagonia, it runs vertically through the trees, covering a meter of bark per second, to feed on insects and fruits that ripen high on the plants. .
But it is the monito’s ability to slow down its bodily functions to survive the region’s harsh winters that has fascinated scientists, such as biologist Roberto Nespolo, a professor who studies animal metabolism at the Universidad Austral de Chile.
When the weather cools, the bug-eyed marsupial builds a moss-covered nest in the hollow of a tree. Snuggling up with four to eight monito colleagues, he settles in for the winter.
There, the tiny marsupial enters what Nespolo described as a “death-like feeling,” and its heart rate drops from 200 beats per minute to 2 or 3 beats per minute. In this inactive state, he conserves energy, breathing only every three minutes. Your blood stops circulating.
“I became interested (in the monito) by this marsupial’s incredible ability to reduce (its) metabolism and save about 95% of energy during torpor,” Nespolo said by email. His work is featured in the new original series by CNN “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World”.
“This is what we measure in the laboratory. We are now able to replicate these measurements in nature and we have found this capacity to be even greater. Monitos could hibernate at 0ºC without any damage to their tissues!”
Nespolo has made his life’s work to understand how these diminutive creatures from the southwestern tip of South America accomplish this feat, something that could help us better understand human metabolism and perhaps even help us find solutions for long-distance space travel.
Space agencies say that if humans want to get to Mars, figuring out how to induce hibernation in astronauts could be the best way to save mission costs, reduce spacecraft size and keep the crew healthy.
“Natural hibernators have a number of physiological adaptations that allow them to almost stop their metabolism, without injury, and wake up perfectly weeks later,” he said.
“Many colleagues are looking to identify these mechanisms to be applied for potential human hibernation or also for medical applications such as organ preservation.”
The monito is a zoological curiosity in more ways than one.
Like kangaroos and koalas, it is a marsupial that raises its young in pouches. However, the monito is more closely related to its Australian brethren than other marsupials, such as skunks, that live in the Americas — something that has long puzzled scientists.
Scientists consider the two species of monito (Dromiciops gliroides and D. bozinovici) to be essentially living fossils — part of a lineage called Microbiotheria that is ancestor of Australian and American marsupials, making them the only living representative of a group of animals long considered extinct.
As a “relict species,” the monito acts as a window into the past that could help scientists understand how they survived for so long, Nespolo’s research suggested.
The temperate forest habitat where the monito lives is dwindling, but Nespolo is confident the tiny creature, whose direct ancestors roamed the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland, will continue to thrive.
“I am hopeful with the monito because they are very resistant. They are able to adapt to changes as long as their habitat still exists,” said Nespolo.
Source: CNN Brasil