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Published in: Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A, Vol. 161, No. 4, 2012.


We measured metabolic hormones and several key metabolites in breeding adult male northern elephant seals to examine the regulation of fuel metabolism during extended natural fasts of over 3 months associated with high levels of energy expenditure. Males were sampled twice, early and late in the fast, losing an average of 23% of body mass and 47% of adipose stores between measurements. Males exhibited metabolic homeostasis over the breeding fast with no changes in glucose, non-esterified fatty acids, or blood urea nitrogen. Ketoacids increased over the fast but were very low when compared to other fasting species. Changes within individuals in total triiodothyronine (tT3) were positively related to daily energy expenditure (DEE) and protein catabolism. Differences in levels of thyroid hormones relative to that observed in weaned pups and females suggest a greater deiodination of T4 to support the high DEE of breeding males. Relative levels of leptin and ghrelin were consistent with the suppression of appetite but a significant reduction in growth hormone across the fast was contrary to expectation in fasting mammals. The lack of the increase in cortisol during fasting found in conspecific weaned pups and lactating females may contribute to the ability of breeding males to spare protein despite high levels of energy expenditure. Together these findings reveal significant differences with conspecifics under varying nutrient demands, suggesting metabolic adaptation to extended high energy fasts.

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