Golden-mantled ground squirrels (Spermophilus lateralis) undergo seasonal hibernation during which core body temperature (T(b)) values are maintained 1-2 degrees C above ambient temperature. Hibernation is not continuous. Squirrels arouse at approximately 7-day intervals, during which T(b) increases to 37 degrees C for approximately 16 h; thereafter, they return to hibernation and sustain low T(b)s until the next arousal. Over the course of the hibernation season, arousals consume 60-80% of a squirrel's winter energy budget, but their functional significance is unknown and disputed. Host-defense mechanisms appear to be downregulated during the hibernation season and preclude normal immune responses. These experiments assessed immune function during hibernation and subsequent periodic arousals. The acute-phase response to bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS) was arrested during hibernation and fully restored on arousal to normothermia. LPS injection (ip) resulted in a 1-1.5 degrees C fever in normothermic animals that was sustained for > 8 h. LPS was without effect in hibernating squirrels, neither inducing fever nor provoking arousal, but a fever did develop several days later, when squirrels next aroused from hibernation; the duration of this arousal was increased sixfold above baseline values. Intracerebroventricular infusions of prostaglandin E(2) provoked arousal from hibernation and induced fever, suggesting that neural signaling pathways that mediate febrile responses are functional during hibernation. Periodic arousals may activate a dormant immune system, which can then combat pathogens that may have been introduced immediately before or during hibernation.