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Effect of lactation stage and concurrent pregnancy on milk composition in the bottlenose dolphin


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K.L. West, College of Natural Sciences, Hawaii Pacific University, 45-045 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe, HI, USA 96744-5297.
Email: kwest@hpu.edu


Although many toothed whales (Cetacea: Odontoceti) lactate for 2–3 years or more, it is not known whether milk composition is affected by lactation stage in any odontocete species. We collected 64 pooled milk samples spanning 1–30 months postpartum from three captive bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus. Milks were assayed for water, fat, crude protein (TN × 6.38) and sugar; gross energy was calculated. Ovulation and pregnancy were determined via monitoring of milk progesterone. Based on analysis of changes in milk composition for each individual dolphin, there were significant increases (P<0.05) in fat (in all three dolphins) and crude protein (in two of three), and a decrease (P<0.05) in water (in two of three) over the course of lactation, but the sugar content did not change. In all three animals, the energy content was positively correlated with month of lactation, but the percentage of energy provided by crude protein declined slightly but significantly (P<0.05). At mid-lactation (7–12 months postpartum, n=17), milk averaged 73.0±1.0% water, 12.8±1.0% fat, 8.9±0.5% crude protein, 1.0±0.1% sugar, 1.76±0.09 kcal g−1 (=7.25 kJ g−1) and 30.3±1.3% protein:energy per cent. This protein:energy per cent was surprisingly high compared with other cetaceans and in relation to the growth rates of calves. Milk progesterone indicated that dolphins ovulated and conceived between 413 and 673 days postpartum, following an increase in milk energy density. The significance of these observed compositional changes to calf nutrition will depend on the amounts of milk produced at different stages of lactation, and how milk composition and yield are influenced by sampling procedure, maternal diet and maternal condition, none of which are known.