High Oxytocin Levels in Bottlenose Dolphin Calves, 2020

Bottlenose dolphin calves have multi-year elevations of plasma oxytocin compared to all other age classes

Kelly J. Robinson, Kerstin Ternes, Neil Hazon, Randall S. Wells & Vincent M. Janik

General and Comparative Endocrinology 2020, volume 286, 113323 (link)

Free access link (valid until 9th January 2020) here

Keywords: Infant behaviour; Maternal behaviour; Mother-infant bonds; Oxytocin; Proximity seeking; Separation


Providing for infants nutritionally via lactation is one of the hallmarks of mammalian reproduction, and infants without motivated mothers providing for them are unlikely to survive. Mothers must maintain regular contact with infants both spatially and temporally while utilising their environment to forage, avoid threats and find shelter. However, mothers can only do this and maximise their reproductive success with some degree of co-operation from infants, despite their developing physical and cognitive capabilities. The neuropeptide hormone oxytocin (OT) triggers proximity-seeking behaviour and acts in a positive feedback loop across mother-infant bonds, stimulating appropriate pro-social behaviour across the pair. However, data on infant OT levels is lacking, and it is unclear how important infants are in maintaining mother-infant associations. The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) is a mammalian species that is fully physically mobile at birth and has multi-year, but individually variable, lactation periods. We investigated OT concentrations in mother-infant pairs of wild individuals compared to other age and reproductive classes. An ELISA to detect OT in dolphin plasma was successfully validated with extracted plasma. We highlight a statistical method for testing for parallelism that could be applied to other ELISA validation studies. OT concentrations were consistently elevated in calves up to at least 4 years of age with lactating mothers (12.1 ± 0.9 pg/ml), while all mothers (4.5 ± 0.4 pg/ml) had OT concentrations comparable to non-lactating individuals (5.9 ± 0.5 pg/ml). Concentrations within infants were individually variable, and may reflect the strength of the bond with their mother. The OT system likely provides a physiological mechanism for motivating infants to perform behaviours that prevent long-term separation from their mothers during this crucial time in their life history. Elevated infant OT has also been linked to energetic and developmental advantages which may lead to greater survival rates. Environmental or anthropogenic disturbances to OT release can occur during bond formation or can disrupt the communication methods used to reinforce these bonds via OT elevation. Variation in OT expression in infants, and its behavioural and physiological consequences, may explain differences in reproductive success despite appropriate maternal behaviour expression.