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. Cozying up with four to eight fellow monitos, it settles in for the winter. There, the tiny marsupial enters what Nespolo described as a deathlike torpor, and its heart rate drops from 200 beats per minute down to 2 or 3 beats per minute. In this inactive state, it conserves energy, only taking a breath every three minutes. Its blood stops circulating.
“That’s what we measured … in the laboratory. Now we could replicate those measurement(s) in the wild, and found that this capacity is even greater. Monitos could hibernate at zero degrees (Celsius), without any harm to their tissues !”
“Natural hibernators have a number of physiological adaptations that permit them to almost stop, without injuries, and to wake up weeks later,” he said.
“So many colleagues are seeking to identify those mechanisms to be applied either 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’s 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 — something that’s long puzzled scientists.
As a “relict species,” the monito acts as a window into the past that can help scientists understand how they have survived for so long, Nespolo’s research has suggested.
The temperate forest habitat where the monito lives is shrinking, but Nespolo is confident that the tiny creature, whose direct ancestors once roamed Earth’s ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland, will continue to thrive.
“I’m hopeful for the monito because they’re very resilient. They are able to adapt to change as long as their habitat still exists,” Nespolo said in the CNN Original Series.