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Keywords:

  • circadian rhythms;
  • clock genes;
  • corticosterone;
  • developmental biology;
  • lactation

Abstract

Mother rabbits nurse their young once a day with circadian periodicity. Nursing bouts are brief (ca. 3 min) and occur inside the maternal burrow. Despite this limited contact mother rabbits and their pups are tuned to each other to ensure that the capacities of each party are used efficiently to ensure the weaning of a healthy litter. In this review we present behavioral, metabolic and hormonal correlates of this phenomenon in mother rabbits and their pups. Research is revealing that the circadian rhythm of locomotion shifts in parallel to the timing of nursing in both parties. In pups corticosterone has a circadian rhythm with highest levels at the time of nursing. Other metabolic and hormonal parameters follow an exogenous or endogenous rhythm which is affected by the time of nursing. In the brain, clock genes and their proteins (e.g. Per1) are differentially expressed in specific brain regions (e.g. suprachiasmatic nucleus, paraventricular nucleus) in relation to providing or ingesting milk in mothers and young, respectively. These findings suggest that circadian activities are modulated, in the mothers, by suckling stimulation and, in the young, by the ingestion of milk and/or the perception of the mammary pheromone. In conclusion, the rabbit pup is an extraordinary model for studying the entraining by a single daily food pulse with minimal manipulations. The mother offers the possibility of studying nursing as a non-photic synchronizer, also with minimal manipulation, as suckling stimulation from the litter occurs only once daily.