Changes in the milk metabolome of the giant panda (ailuropoda melanoleuca) with time after birth - three phases in early lactation and progressive individual differences

Tong Zhang, Rong Zhang, Liang Zhang, Zhihe Zhang, Rong Hou, Hairui Wang, I. Kati Loeffler, David G. Watson, Malcolm W. Kennedy

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Ursids (bears) in general, and giant pandas in particular, are highly altricial at birth. The components of bear milks and their changes with time may be uniquely adapted to nourish relatively immature neonates, protect them from pathogens, and support the maturation of neonatal digestive physiology. Serial milk samples collected from three giant pandas in early lactation were subjected to untargeted metabolite profiling and multivariate analysis. Changes in milk metabolites with time after birth were analysed by Principal Component Analysis, Hierarchical Cluster Analysis and further supported by Orthogonal Partial Least Square-Discriminant Analysis, revealing three phases of milk maturation: days 1-6 (Phase 1), days 7-20 (Phase 2), and beyond day 20 (Phase 3). While the compositions of Phase 1 milks were essentially indistinguishable among individuals, divergences emerged during the second week of lactation. OPLS regression analysis positioned against the growth rate of one cub tentatively inferred a correlation with changes in the abundance of a trisaccharide, isoglobotriose, previously observed to be a major oligosaccharide in ursid milks. Three artificial milk formulae used to feed giant panda cubs were also analysed, and were found to differ markedly in component content from natural panda milk. These findings have implications for the dependence of the ontogeny of all species of bears, and potentially other members of the Carnivora and beyond, on the complexity and sequential changes in maternal provision of micrometabolites in the immediate period after birth.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0143417
Number of pages18
JournalPLOS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2015


  • giant panda
  • bear milk
  • milk metabolites

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