Annual rhythms of body weight and reproduction in the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) are the result of an interaction between seasonal changes in day length (photoperiod) and seasonal changes in the responsiveness of animals to these photoperiods. The present study demonstrates that under natural conditions European hamsters are not able to perceive long photoperiods (i.e., a 16L:8D cycle) before mid-November. This is an important difference to other hamster species, in which regrowth of the gonads can be stimulated by exposure to long photoperiods at any stage of gonadal regression. The experiments also demonstrate the existence of an annual phase of sensitivity to long photoperiods that starts around mid-November and extends until March/April. During this phase of sensitivity, exposure to a long photoperiod (16L:8D) induced gonadal regrowth within 3 wk. Additional experiments with an accelerated photoperiodic lighting regimen indicated that a photoperiod of approximately 13 h is necessary to stimulate gonadal regrowth. Under natural light conditions in Stuttgart (48.46°N), a photoperiod of 13 h is reached by the beginning of April, which fits well with the finding that the majority of animals kept under a natural light:dark cycle had well-developed gonads by the end of April. Nevertheless, these animals showed a rather variable timing of gonadal regrowth, ranging from early January to late April. This is most likely the result of two processes: first, an endogenous mechanism (photorefractoriness) that induces gonadal recrudescence without any photoperiodic information while the animals are still in their hibernation burrows, and second, a direct stimulatory effect of long photoperiods.
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