The evolution of the nutrient composition of mammalian milks



  1. In mammals, nutrient allocation during lactation is a critical component of maternal care as milk intake promotes juvenile growth and survival, and hence maternal and offspring fitness.
  2. Milk composition varies widely across mammals and is hypothesized to have arisen via selection pressures associated with environment, diet and life history. These hypotheses have been proposed based on observations and/or cross-species comparisons that did not standardize for stage of lactation and did not consider evolutionary history of the species in analyses.
  3. We conducted the largest comparative analysis of milk composition to date accounting for phylogenetic relationships among species in order to understand the selective advantage of producing milk with specific nutritional profiles. We examined four milk constituents in association with species ecology while incorporating phylogeny in analyses.
  4. Phylogenetic signal was apparent for all milk constituents examined. After controlling for phylogeny, diet and relative lactation length explained the greatest amount of variation in milk composition. Several aspects of species' ecologies, including adaptation to arid environments, reproductive output and maternal body mass were not associated with milk composition after accounting for phylogeny.
  5. Our results suggest that milk composition is largely a function of evolutionary history, maternal nutrient intake and duration of milk production. Arriving at these conclusions was made possible by including the evolutionary relationships among species.