Stockpiling by Pups and Self-Sacrifice by Their Fasting Mothers Observed in Birth to Weaning Serum Metabolomes of Atlantic Grey Seals

Sci Rep. 2020 May 4;10(1):7465. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64488-1.


During the uniquely short lactations of true seals, pups acquire a greater proportion of maternal body resources, at a greater rate, than in any other group of mammals. Mothers in many species enter a period of anorexia but must preserve sufficient reserves to fuel hunting and thermoregulation for return to cold seas. Moreover, pups may undergo a period of development after weaning during which they have no maternal care or nutrition. This nutritionally closed system presents a potentially extreme case of conflict between maternal survival and adequate provisioning of offspring, likely presenting strains on their metabolisms. We examined the serum metabolomes of five mother and pup pairs of Atlantic grey seals, Halichoerus grypus, from birth to weaning. Changes with time were particularly evident in pups, with indications of strain in the fat and energy metabolisms of both. Crucially, pups accumulate certain compounds to levels that are dramatically greater than in mothers. These include compounds that pups cannot synthesise themselves, such as pyridoxine/vitamin B6, taurine, some essential amino acids, and a conditionally essential amino acid and its precursor. Fasting mothers therefore appear to mediate stockpiling of critical metabolites in their pups, potentially depleting their own reserves and prompting cessation of lactation.