Changes in plasma progesterone and prolactin concentrations during the annual cycle and the role of prolactin in the maintenance of lactation and luteal development in the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella)
Progesterone in Antarctic fur seals was undectable from 1–2 days before parturition to 4–6 days after parturition. There was a rapid increase in progesterone to 20 ng/ml between 6 and 10 days post partum and this increase coincided with peak concentrations of oestradiol-17β at the time normally associated with oestrus and mating in this species. Newly formed corpora lutea were present in the ovaries by Day 9 post partum even though the seals had been isolated in an enclosure and not mated. Thereafter, progesterone remained detectable, but at a low concentration (5 ng/ml) throughout embryonic diapause. A similar pattern was observed in unmated females which suggests they enter a period of pseudopregnancy. Progesterone increased to 35 ng/ml between late February and mid-March, indicating activation of the corpus luteum at the end of diapause, and then declined slowly through the remainder of gestation. Plasma prolactin, measured against a human prolactin standard, was elevated from 1–2 days before parturition and peaked at 0–3 days post partum. It then declined slowly throughout the post-partum period and remained at a low level throughout embryonic diapause. Prolactin concentration declined to undetectable at the end of diapause and before the end of lactation. Reduction of prolactin secretion by injections of bromocriptine from Days 3 to 5 post-partum terminated lactation. Mothers, which normally leave their pups to feed at sea on about Day 7 post partum, did not continue to lactate beyond Day 7 although this did not appear to be associated with reduced prolactin secretion. Bromocriptine treatment appeared to prevent the post-ovulatory surge of progesterone although there was no long-term effect of bromocriptine on progesterone secretion during the early stages of embryonic diapause/pseudopregnancy. This study has shown that prolactin is an important hormone for maintaining early lactation in the fur seal and it probably also has a role in the control of ovulation and luteal development. Prolactin does not appear to be implicated in the control of lactation cycles in fur seals. Changes in plasma progesterone during the annual cycle show that the pattern in fur seals resembles that of some carnivores with embryonic diapause.