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Our circadian rhythm, which controls our 24-hour cycles, and is regulated by daily exposure to sunlight, plays a pivotal role in maintaining our overall well-being. However, as winter descends upon the northern hemisphere, bringing shorter days and diminished sunlight, this clock can falter, leading to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affects millions of individuals worldwide, causing lethargy, joylessness, and depression. Surprisingly, this phenomenon isn’t unique to humans. Circadian rhythms exist throughout the animal kingdom, impacting a wide range of species, including zoo animals.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a relatively common affliction in humans, affecting approximately 1 to 3 percent of adults in temperate climates, with a higher prevalence among women. Its effects are most pronounced in regions with more extreme variations in daylight hours, especially those closer to the Earth’s poles. The connection between latitude and SAD is rooted in our evolutionary history. Our species originally evolved in equatorial regions, where sunlight is abundant year-round. Consequently, the farther we move from the equator towards the poles, the more vulnerable we become to SAD.
Circadian rhythms are not exclusive to humans; they extend across the animal kingdom, affecting everything from birds and reptiles to fish and insects. Just like humans, animals also experience their version of SAD when they are translocated from their natural habitats to regions with different light patterns. This issue becomes particularly challenging when dealing with zoo animals, many of which were not designed to thrive in their current latitudinal environments.
Kristine Gandia, a researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, emphasizes the importance of synchronizing internal clocks with external cues like light and temperature. When these internal rhythms become disrupted, adverse effects can occur in animals, as well as humans. To better understand how SAD affects zoo animals, Gandia and her team conducted a study, focusing on giant pandas, whose natural habitat is in southern China.
Giant pandas are non-hibernating animals native to the bamboo forests of southern China. This region is located significantly closer to the equator than the latitudes of many zoos, including those in northern climates. For their study, Gandia and her colleagues observed panda behavior by remotely monitoring panda cams in five different zoos. The results were unsurprising: pandas in zoos located outside their natural habitat range exhibited reduced activity levels compared to those in their native regions.
Interestingly, pandas born in higher latitude zoos displayed similar sluggishness, indicating that their genetic makeup is predisposed to the latitudes in which their species evolved. This discovery carries significant implications for the Conservation efforts aimed at preserving endangered species.
The impact of latitude and circadian rhythms isn’t limited to zoo animals. Many pets reside in homes far removed from their species’ original habitats. While humans can adapt to seasonal variations through various means, such as light therapy lamps or travel, the same cannot be said for our furry companions. Currently, there is limited data available on the circadian rhythms of pets.
Gandia and her team are eager to expand their research to include pets and even agricultural animals, recognizing the potential significance of circadian rhythms and sunlight diets for the well-being of all creatures. Understanding how different species adapt to changing environmental conditions, especially when it comes to light and temperature, may hold the key to ensuring the health and happiness of our animal companions.
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