A tiny creature could help humans unlock long-haul space travel

But it’s 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 Austral University of Chile.

Once the weather turns cold, the bug-eyed monito builds a mossy nest in a tree hollow. Comfortable with four to eight other instructors, he settles in for the winter. There, the tiny marsupial enters what Nespolo described as a deadly torpor, and his heart rate goes from 200 beats per minute to 2 or 3 beats per minute. In this inactive state, it conserves its energy by only breathing once every three minutes. His blood stops circulating.

“I became interested in (the monitor) because of this marsupial’s amazing ability to lower (its) metabolism and save about 95% energy during torpor,” Nespolo said via email. His work is featured in CNN’s new original series “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World.”

“That’s what we measured…in the lab. Now we’ve been able to replicate those measurements in nature, and found that this ability is even greater. Monitors could hibernate at zero degrees (Celsius), without no harm to their fabrics.”

Nespolo has set itself the task of understanding how these tiny creatures from the southwestern tip of South America achieve this feat, which could help us better understand human metabolism and perhaps even help us find solutions for long-haul 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 cut mission costs, downsize spacecraft and keep the crew healthy. health.

“Natural hibernators have a number of physiological adaptations that allow them to almost shut down their metabolism, injury-free, and wake up perfectly weeks later,” he said.

“Many colleagues are seeking to identify these mechanisms to be applied either for potential human hibernation or also for medical applications such as organ preservation.”

Monitos (Dromiciops gliroides) hibernate together in a nest.

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 opossums, that live in the Americas, which has long puzzled scientists.

Scientists consider both species of monito (Dromiciops gliroides and D. bozinovici) to be essentially living fossils – part of a lineage called Microbiotheria that is ancestral to Australian and American marsupials, making them the only living representative of a group of animals long thought to be extinct.

As a “relic species”, the monito acts as a window into the past that can help scientists understand how they survived for so long, Nespolo research suggested.

The temperate forest habitat where the monito lives is shrinking, but Nespolo is confident the tiny creature, whose direct ancestors once roamed the ancient Earth supercontinent Gondwanaland, will continue to thrive.

“I’m hopeful for monito because they’re very resilient. They’re able to adapt to change as long as their habitat still exists,” Nespolo said in the CNN original series.


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