Whales are marine mammals and like all mammals (with the exception of a few species) they share many of the same traits with land mammals including baring offspring (whales have a gestation period similar that is very similar to pregnancy in humans), being warm-blooded, having hair (some species are born with hair) and producing milk to feed their young.
Shortly after birth the mother begins to feed her child milk from her nipple since the child is unable to hunt for its own food.
When the female whale lactates the thickness of the whales milk can vary greatly.
In fact a 35% – 50% fat concentration is common among many species of whale as the higher fat percentage allows the whales milk to travel through the water without breaking up.
The thick milk is often referred to as having a toothpaste like consistency.
This is very important because in order for the adult female whale to feed her baby she must either shoot the milk into her baby’s mouth through the water or allow the child to suckle the milk from her nipple.
If the fat consistency is too low than the mother’s milk would dissolve in the water making it difficult for the baby whale to feed and receive adequate nutrients.
The fatty milk also provides the baby with lot’s of nutrients and energy, which is required to help the baby grow into a healthy young adult.
In order to maximize the transfer of milk to the baby some children may use their tongue to create a tight seal around the mothers nipple.
A few species of whale (such as the blue whale) may drink in excess of 150 gallons of milk per day and can easily gain 100 pounds or more each day in its first few months of birth primarily from drinking its mother’s milk.
Baby whales are often able to consume anywhere from 2% to 10% of their weight in milk on a daily basis.
In terms of how long a baby whale may feed on its mother’s milk the length of nursing can vary greatly lasting anywhere from 6 months – 2 years depending on the whales species.
Birth, nursing and relationships
Females may mate with several males during a single season and will typically produce a single offspring (twins are very rare) once every 1 - 5 years depending on the species.
Producing a single offspring over the course of several years ensures that the newborn will stand a better chance of survival and be given full attention during the first nurturing years of its life.
During the first 6 months to 2 years the mother will feed her young milk in order to nourish the baby and provide it with nutrients.
This feeding will go on until the child is able to hunt for food and survive on its own.
In some cases a child may continue to suckle on the mothers nipple after they’ve started consuming solid foods, and even after the mother stops lactating.
For these children it may take longer to stop suckling due to their psychological dependency on their mother; in most cases this behavior stops by the age of 2, however in rare situations this may last even longer.
In addition to feeding their young with milk, mothers often develop very close relationships with their children.
Depending on the species these relationships may last anywhere from a few years to a lifetime.
In some tightly knit pods or groups females other than the mother may also care for the mother’s child by protecting the child and in some cases even feeding it, however this depends largely on the species and the pod.
Within a family group the male whales are referred to as bulls, females are called cows and the newborns are known as calves.
The importance of milk for healthy growth
As with other animal species (including humans) milk serves an important part in the healthy growth of infant whales and young children.
For baby whales milk provides high quantities of healthy fats/fatty acids and nutrients that help the child grow, assist with bone development, improve the immune system and ensures that the child gets the minerals and vitamins it needs for proper physical and brain functioning.
In fact baby whales may survive solely off of milk at the very beginning of their birth.
Without milk these newborns may starve or become malnourished as they no longer receive nutrients from their umbilical cord, which becomes severed at birth.
As stated earlier baby whales can consume a very large quantity of milk on a daily basis and this milk provides them with the food they need for the first several weeks to the several months of their existence on earth.
Aside from feeding the child suckling milk can also be thought of as a bonding experience between a mother and her child.
Time and time again it has been proven that early nourishment and care between a child and his/her parents is essential for proper emotional development learning basic communication skills.
Smaller marine mammals such as killer whales and other dolphins that have been fed milk from a container (often in captivity) tend to have much shorter and highly stressed lives.
In fact some estimates state that a killer whales lifespan may be reduced by over 50% when held in captivity.
Part of this is due to living in a confined area and being isolated from other animals and part of it may be due to their diet such as consuming frozen fish and milk that does not come directly from suckling the mothers nipples.
As you can see milk serves a very important part of early child development both in terms of providing nutrients and in allowing the child to develop a social/emotional bond with its mother.
Even when given the utmost care and compassion marine mammals (such as dolphins) that are held in captivity tend to fair less well in terms of lifespan than those that live in the wild.
On the other hand temporary captivity may be vital to assisting marine mammals in recovering from serious injuries where their chances of surviving in the wild seem fairly low and additional care is required for their development.