• northern elephant seal;
  • Mirounga angustirostris;
  • stable isotopes;
  • lactation;
  • fasting;
  • gestation


Effects of physiological processes such as gestation, lactation and nutritional stress on stable isotope ratios remain poorly understood. To determine their impact, we investigated these processes in simultaneously fasting and lactating northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values were measured in blood and milk of 10 mother-pup pairs on days 5 and 22 of lactation. As long- and short-term integrators of diet, blood cells and serum may reflect foraging data or energy reserves from late gestation and lactation, respectively. Limited changes in isotopic signatures of maternal blood over the lactating period were highlighted. Nitrogen isotope fractionation associated with mother-to-offspring transfer of nutrients was generated between mother and offspring during gestation and lactation. This fractionation was tissue and time-specific, it varied between early and late lactation from +0.6‰ to +1.3‰ in blood cells and from +1.1‰ to nonsignificant value in serum. Therefore, if pups appear to be good proxies to investigate the female trophic ecology especially for C sources, much more caution is required in using δ15N values. Further studies are also needed to better define the relative impact of fasting and lactation on the enrichment or depletion of isotopes in different tissues.