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Beluga Calf Update - 7/25

Nursing. It's the most natural interaction between a mother and her newborn. But imagine how hard it is when mom doesn't have arms to cradle and baby doesn't have hands to cling.

The calf moves toward Puiji's mammary glands, located on either side of her vent.

That's why Shedd's marine mammals and veterinary crews watched so anxiously for Puiji's calf to figure out where the milk was and how to get it. Good mom that she is, Puiji cruised slowly while the calf instinctively mouthed her sides. To stay strong, he had to find her mammary glands within 24 hours of birth. To the joy and relief of Shedd staffers, he did, meeting a critical milestone in his very early development.

By the end of his third day, the calf had learned how to latch on securely to his moving mom to get big gulps of her rich milk. Shedd's senior director for animal health, Dr. Bill Van Bonn, explains that a baby whale rolls its tongue into a soda-strawlike tube for nursing. Once the calf has his mouth firmly on the mammary, Mom contracts muscles around the gland to give him a high-pressure squirt of milk that is typically about 27 percent butterfat. (For comparison, half-and-half is about 11 percent, premium ice creams can run as high as 18 percent, and whipped cream is about 35 percent butterfat.)

Each instance of nursing is called a "bout." A bout can last anywhere from one to 15 or more seconds. Often the calf will nurse in a closely spaced series of bouts, called a "set." "Think of a set as a meal," explains v.p of marine mammals and animal training Ken Ramirez, "and a bout as a spoonful."

The trainers observing the calf around the clock carefully watch for bouts and time them to make sure that the little whale is nursing enough to get the energy that he needs. The calf's nursing times have increased almost daily, from a total of 34 minutes on Wednesday to 46 minutes by Monday night, when he was a week old.

What goes in must come out. The animal-care staffers got pretty excited when the baby beluga pooped for the first time when he was 2 days old. It was a reassuring sign that his brand-new digestive system is processing food properly.

Trainers who had days off after the birth noticed when they came back to work that the calf looked a little plumper. (So far, all measurements have been made with a practiced eye rather than a scale; the calf won't have a hands-on exam until he's progressed more with bonding with Mom, nursing and feeling comfortable with his surroundings.)
The trainers are also watching Puiji closely to see that she's recovering from the birth and producing a good supply of milk for the calf. The best indication that she's producing enough milk would be a 50 percent increase in the amount of food that she normally eats. That means taking in more than 50 pounds of herring, capelin and squid every day.

"When you say a mother is eating for two, when she starts lactating, that is absolutely true," says Ramirez. "She needs energy for herself, and then she needs the calories that translate into milk for her calf."

So far, Puiji's appetite isn't quite what the trainers expect, and they're paying close attention to her.

Getting precise observations of these and other behaviors is essential to keeping the beluga calf and his mom healthy. That's one of the reasons why the Secluded Bay walkway and underwater viewing area are closed to the public right now. Trainers equipped with data sheets monitor the whales 24/7. We also need to provide a quiet environment in which Puiji can devote all her attention to her calf and the little beluga can meet his critical milestones free from distractions and disturbances.

Check back next Monday to see how the calf is progressing!


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