Hormonal changes associated with the transition between nursing and natural fasting in northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris)

Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2003 Jan;130(1):78-83. doi: 10.1016/s0016-6480(02)00572-5.


To better interpret previously described hormonal changes observed during the natural postweaning fast (2-3 months) endured by pups of the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), we compared plasma cortisol, thyroid hormones, and leptin in pups (n=5) measured during nursing and fasting periods. Blood samples were taken at four times; early (9 days postpartum) and late (18-22 days postpartum) nursing, and early (second week postweaning) and late (eighth week postweaning) fasting. Plasma cortisol increased 39% between early and late nursing and almost 4-fold by late fasting. After the early nursing period, cortisol and body mass were negatively correlated (y=28.3-0.19 x; R=0.569; p=0.027). Total thyroxine (tT(4)), free T(4) (fT(4)), total triiodothyronine (tT3) and reverse T(3) (rT(3)) were greatest at early nursing and reduced by late nursing and remained so throughout the fast, with the exception of tT(4), which increased between late nursing (17.7+/-2.1 ng mL(-1)) and late fasting (30.1+/-2.8 ng mL(-1)) periods. Leptin remained unaltered among the four sampling periods and was not correlated with body mass. Pups appear to exhibit a shift in the relationship between cortisol and body mass suggesting a potential role for cortisol in the regulation of body fat. The higher concentrations of tT(3) and tT(4) during early nursing may reflect enhanced growth and development during this period, however the increase late in fasting is likely physiologically insignificant and an artifact of reduced metabolic clearance of these hormones. Transition of the pups from nursing to fasting states is characterized by a striking lack of change in cortisol, thyroid hormones, and leptin suggesting that any metabolic alterations associated with this transition may occur independent of these hormones.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Fasting / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hormones / blood*
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Lactation
  • Leptin / blood
  • Male
  • Seals, Earless / growth & development
  • Seals, Earless / physiology*
  • Thyrotropin / blood
  • Thyroxine / blood
  • Triiodothyronine / blood
  • Triiodothyronine, Reverse / blood


  • Hormones
  • Leptin
  • Triiodothyronine
  • Triiodothyronine, Reverse
  • Thyrotropin
  • Thyroxine
  • Hydrocortisone