20 Days of Eco-Wellness, Day 15: Cat Naps and Dolphin Dreams

Yesterday I shared some tips for getting some shut-eye while helping the planet, either directly or passively. I do find sleep to be an interesting topic, even if it’s a little yawn-inducing.

Did you know the way we sleep today is vastly different from how our ancestors slept? It’s even changed since the early 20th century. The way our culture sleeps today, 8 hours in one go, is a relatively new phenomenon. And we are the only animal on earth that does it.

Up until the 20th century, humans shared a common characteristic of sleeping in shifts like most other herd animals. Having worked with elephants and staying over for night time observations, I found it interesting how the elephants would sleep soundly for about four hours, then wake up completely alert, foraging and playing with each other, only to fall asleep again a few hours later for another 3-4 hours. Then I discovered this was the natural way of most animals.

Before the 20th century, most of the human population lived in rural areas, spread out on farms or secluded in forests and small communities. It was more natural to get up very early and get started on your work for the day. Around lunchtime, most humans would take a nap, wake up a couple hours later, and finish up their work. This especially made sense for animal farmers who wanted their livestock to stay out in the pasture as long as possible. If they slept in one long stretch, they would miss the earlier opportunity to set out animals to pasture. Or miss bringing them in later in the evening. Breaking up their sleep allowed them to work a full day while getting enough rest.

Most animals behave in this manner. Cats are notorious sleepers. But while they sleep on average 16 hours a day (please, God, if I come back in another life, please let me be a cat), their active times are FULL of energy. Cats are predators, and since their prey typically doesn’t sit around lazily waiting to become food, cats expend A LOT of energy to chase their prey. Considering many scientists believe cats are the most recent domestication, and least domesticated pet humans have, this instinct to sleep and conserve energy for massive expenditure for chasing prey has still survived in our precious companions.

So, no, your cats are not lazy. They are smart. And we should emulate them more often. At least in conserving energy and using energy appropriately.

The other animal I wish I could emulate are dolphins. Dolphins are simply amazing sleepers. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. Dolphins’ brains have adapted so these air-breathing marine mammals who live completely in the water can still get a full rest period. Because dolphins are conscious breathers, meaning they have to be awake in order to open their blowhole and breathe, they cannot enter a deep REM sleep like humans and other animals. Which is kinda sad, because that means dolphins don’t really dream, at least I am assuming as much.

Because dolphins have to be awake in order to breathe, their brain has adapted to shutdown individual sections, one half at a time. This allows the dolphin to rest, continue swimming with their pod, and remain alert enough to breathe. Scientists didn’t know this until they studied dolphins in controlled environments. They noticed at night, the pod would slow down significantly, and certain groups would swim in a very similar pattern. Most peculiar to them was the group would come up to the surface to breathe at about the same time interval, and the dolphins would only have one eye closed. The dolphins were on autopilot. Their echolocation was working so they wouldn’t run into anything. They were breathing regularly. And they responded to stimuli presented to them even while in this rest state.

This is definitely the definition of a multitasker. Dolphins can multitask even while they SLEEP! How bad-ass is that?

Which way would you prefer to sleep? Like an elephant in various shifts, like humans used to do? Like a cat, sleeping a lot but expending a lot of energy in your awake time? Or like a dolphin, and getting things done on autopilot but getting enough rest?


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