Stomach temperature records reveal nursing behaviour and transition to solid food consumption in an unweaned mammal, the harbour seal pup (Phoca vitulina)
Sauve, Caroline C., Van de Walle, Joanie, Hammill, Mike O., Arnould, John P.Y. and Beauplet, Gwenael 2014, Stomach temperature records reveal nursing behaviour and transition to solid food consumption in an unweaned mammal, the harbour seal pup (Phoca vitulina), PLoS one, vol. 9, no. 2, Article number e90329, pp. 1-13, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090329.
Knowledge of milk transfer from mother to offspring and early solid food ingestions in mammals allows for a greater understanding of the factors affecting transition to nutritional independence and pre-weaning growth and survival. Yet studies monitoring suckling behaviour have often relied on visual observations, which might not accurately represent milk intake. We assessed the use of stomach temperature telemetry to monitor suckling and foraging behaviour in free-ranging harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) pups during lactation. Stomach temperature declines were analysed using principal component and cluster analyses, as well as trials using simulated stomachs resulting in a precise classification of stomach temperature drops into milk, seawater and solid food ingestions. Seawater and solid food ingestions represented on average 15.361.6% [0-40.0%] and 0.760.2% [0-13.0%], respectively, of individual ingestions. Overall, 63.7% of milk ingestions occurred while the pups were in the water, of which 13.9% were preceded by seawater ingestion. The average time between subsequent ingestions was significantly less for seawater than for milk ingestions. These results suggest that seawater ingestion might represent collateral ingestion during aquatic suckling attempts. Alternatively, as solid food ingestions (n = 19) were observed among 7 pups, seawater ingestion could result from missed prey capture attempts. This study shows that some harbour seals start ingesting prey while still being nursed, indicating that weaning occurs more gradually than previously thought in this species. Stomach temperature telemetry represents a promising method to study suckling behaviour in wild mammals and transition to nutritional independence in various endotherm species.
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