Metabolic compensation during high energy output in fasting, lactating grey seals (Halichoerus grypus): metabolic ceilings revisited

Jo–Ann E. Mellish


Lactation is the most energetically expensive period for female mammals and is associated with some of the highest sustained metabolic rates (SusMR) in vertebrates (reported as total energy throughput). Females typically deal with this energy demand by increasing food intake and the structure of the alimentary tract may act as the central constraint to ceilings on SusMR at about seven times resting or standard metabolic rate (SMR). However, demands of lactation may also be met by using a form of metabolic compensation such as reducing locomotor activities or entering torpor. In some phocid seals, cetaceans and bears, females fast throughout lactation and thus cannot offset the high energetic costs of lactation through increased food intake. We demonstrate that fasting grey seal females sustain, for several weeks, one of the highest total daily energy expenditures (DEE; 7.4 x SMR) reported in mammals, while progressively reducing maintenance metabolic expenditures during lactation through means not explained by reduction in lean body mass or behavioural changes. Simultaneously, the energy exported in milk is progressively increased, associated with increased lipoprotein lipase activity in the mammary gland, resulting in greater offspring growth. Our results suggest that females use compensatory mechanisms to help meet the extraordinary energetic costs of lactation. Additionally, although the concepts of SusMR and ceilings on total DEE may be somewhat different in fasting lactating species, our data on phocid seals demonstrate that metabolic ceilings on milk energy output, in general, are not constrained by the same kind of peripheral limitations as are other energy-consuming tissues. In phocid seals, the high ceilings on DEE during lactation, coupled with metabolic compensation, are undoubtedly important factors enabling shortened lactation.

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