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Starving and too young to be separated from his mother, Ody was found alone. Just like many other patients at our hospital right now, this skinny pup was in no shape to make it on his own.

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northern fur seal Ody
harbor seal pup

Physiological Responses to Treating Malnutrition in Harbor Seal Pups

Response of metabolic hormones and blood metabolites to realimentation in rehabilitated harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) pups
  • Malnutrition


Mammals with increased requirements for adipose tissue stores, such as marine mammals, have altered nutrient allocation priorities compared to many terrestrial mammals and thus the physiological response to undernutrition (low nutritional status) and realimentation (refeeding) may differ. Key regulators of nutrient allocation and tissue specific growth include metabolic hormones of the somatotropic axis, growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, as well as satiety and adipose promoting ghrelin and the stress hormone cortisol. Longitudinal measurements of metabolic hormones, blood metabolites, and morphometrics were collected over a 10-week period in twelve (male n = 3, female n = 9) harbor seal pups (< 6 weeks of age). Blood metabolites were used to indicate metabolic response during realimentation while morphometrics estimated tissue specific growth priorities. Harbor seal pups undergoing refeeding after nutritional deprivation show a preference for protein sparing despite severe malnutrition. Both BUN and total protein were negatively associated with GH and positively associated with IGF-I and ghrelin highlighting the importance of these metabolic hormones in the regulation of protein metabolism. While the response of the somatotropic axis to realimentation was typical of the mammalian pattern, the surprising increase of ghrelin across the study period suggests the priority of adipose accretion in addition to a possible mechanism regulating compensatory growth of vital adipose stores in a species, which prioritizes adipose accretion for survival. 

Dailey, R.E., Smith, K., Fontaine, C., Jia, Y. and Avery, J.P., 2020. Response of metabolic hormones and blood metabolites to realimentation in rehabilitated harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) pups. Journal of Comparative Physiology B, pp.1-12


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