, Volume 166, Issue 5, pp 295-304

Energetics of lactation in harp seals (Phoca groenlandica) from the gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada

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Abstract

This study reports the findings of an integrated, comprehensive analysis of lactation energetics in harp seals conducted using longitudinal measurements of mass, body composition and milk composition from mother-pup pairs in conjunction with water flux measurements in pups. The nursing period of harp seals is a short, intense and relatively efficient period of energy transfer from mothers to pups. The average daily milk intake for pups was 3.65±0.24 kg which is equivalent to 79.5 MJ of energy. Eighty-one per cent of the energy received in the milk was metabolisable and 66% of the energy was stored by the pups as body tissue. The field metabolic rate of pups was 3.9±0.4 time basal metabolic rate. The pups were growing at a rate of 2.2 kg per day during the nursing period. The distribution of this mass gain varied in terms of tissue composition, depending on the age of the pups, but over the whole nursing period approximately half of the tissue was stored as fat. Harp seal mothers lost an average of 3.1 kg per day during lactation which was composed of 37% water, 50% fat, 11% protein and 2% ash. Mothers spent half of their time during the lactation period actively diving and only one-third of their time on the surface of the ice. Milk compositional changes followed the normal phocid pattern with increasing fat content and decreasing water content as lacration progressed. The mean mass transfer efficiency was 73%. However, this value cannot be used without qualification because female harp seals in this study fed to varying degrees, consuming an estimated 0–4.8 kg of fish per day. Feeding does not appear to be required in order to achieve the energy requirements for lactation, given the energy stores possessed by females, and some females do fast through the entire period so feeding may be considered opportunistic in nature.

Communicated by C. Heldmaier