Flamingoes, Naked Mole Rats, and Sleepers

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August 1, 2017 by libroshombre


The age-old mystery of how flamingoes sleep on one leg without falling over has finally been resolved. Biologists at Emory University wondered if the one-legged stance was caused by regulating body temperature or reducing muscle fatigue, but they had no live specimens to test. When they acquired some zoo cadavers, they found the legs still snapped into place so soundly the dead birds could stand. But when both legs were snapped into the upright position they toppled. Now one more mystery’s solved, and perhaps everyone can sleep better.

Some of us sleep more profoundly than others. An impressively well-trained dog recently joined our household; he comes, heels, sits, stays, and even puts himself to bed around 9:30 PM. He does snore a bit, sighs profoundly, and otherwise moves the air about. Perhaps he should take a cue from the naked mole-rat.

Called “naked” for their furlessness, these wrinkly East African mammals live in deep, hive-like burrows. According to a WashingontPost.com article by Ben Guarino, they’re “arguably the world’s weirdest mammals” since “they don’t get tumors. They’re immune to types of chronic pain and the irritant in chili peppers. They live like social insects, in 300-strong underground colonies where a mole-rat queen gives birth to worker children … they do not regulate their body temperature – they are cold-blooded … Mice live a maximum of three years. Old Man, the world’s oldest mole-rat, died at 32.”

Even weirder, University of Illinois researchers report that mole-rats can survive for 18 minutes without any oxygen,with no side effects, by entering a sleep-like state and switching their bodies from glucose conversion to fructose, like plants. For point of reference, normal air includes 22% oxygen, and OSHA defines “oxygen-deficient air” as containing less than 19.5% oxygen. Humans stop functioning well at 10%, and die at 5%, a level at which mole-rats thrive.

Scientists have various theories about the purpose of sleep, according to a NYTimes.com article by Carl Zimmer: save energy, provide “an opportunity to clear away the brain’s cellular waste,” or “sleep simply forces animals to lie still, letting them hide.” Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggest that “we sleep to forget some of the things we learned each day. In order to learn we have to grow connections, or synapses, between the neurons in our brains. These connections enable neurons to send signals to one another quickly and efficiently. We store new memories in these networks.”

The biologists “proposed that synapses grew so exuberantly during the day that our brains circuits get ‘noisy.’ When we sleep … our brains pare back the connections to lift the signal over the noise. The research suggests that sleepiness triggers neurons to make a protein called ‘Homer1A’ that “turns on the pruning machinery” in our brains.

Sleep’s becoming a luxury, according to “Sleep Is the New Status Symbol,” a NYTimes.com article by Penelope Green. Scads of devices, programs, and software are being fabricated to enhance sleeping, from MIT’s use of “weighted blankets to induce a swaddling sensation,”personalized “nap pods,” and “listening to recordings of Icelandic fairy tales,” to sleep-inducing headbands from Paris that emit soporific “sound waves.” “For years,” Green wrote, “studies uponstudies have shown how bad sleep weakens the immune system, impairs learning and memory, contributes to depression and other mood and mental disorders, as well as obesity diabetes, cancer, and an early death. Sedated sleep – hello Ambien – has been shown to be as deleterious as poor sleep.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls sleeplessness a public health concern. In fact, lastyear a RAND Corporation study found that business losses due to employees’ poor sleeping cost $411 billion annually, or 2.28% of the national gross domestic product. Fortunately, librarian’s are doing their bit. A gravelly-voiced San Francisco librarian named Drew Ackerman provides “Sleep With Me Podcasts: The Podcast That Puts You To Sleep: A Lulling, Droning, Boring Bedtime Story to Distract Your Racing Mind” (SleepWithMepodcast,com) that 1.3 million people download monthly.

Don’t sleep at your library, though. It’s a hopping place, and seating’s usually at a premium. If drowsy, do the right thing and snooze elsewhere, for as the poet Joseph Addison noted, “Sweet are the slumbers of the virtuous man.”




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