Dolphin calf swimming with motherPiquet’s calf has hit the milk milestone, beginning to nurse around 6:20 p.m. Tuesday and continuing about every 30 minutes since then. Until nursing starts, members of the animal care team can practically hear a clock ticking the minutes in their heads as they watch the calf swimming alongside mom, expending energy. That mom and calf made the lactation linkup less than 24 hours after the birth was a joy and a relief.

With the start of nursing, the calf gets a hefty dose of colostrum, the first secretion from the mammary glands, which contains a milkshake of antibodies that protect the newborn against disease, a higher percentage of protein than subsequent milk, growth factors that stimulate development of the immature gut, and a mild laxative to get things moving.

That milestone took place around 3:30 Wednesday morning.

The concern about mom and calf figuring out the feeding business is heightened by the fact that nursing is a complicated task for dolphins and other cetaceans. Mom has no arms to cradle the calf; the calf has no hands to find and clutch mother’s breast. And they’re both swimming. Instinct is everything: The calf must explore mom’s underside to find the recessed mammary glands, and mom must present that exact area to the calf. This calf was already nuzzling Piquet’s side when it was less than 10 hours old.

And Piquet, a first-time mom, had some prenatal training. Call it La Leche for lags (the shortcut nickname for this dolphin genus, Lagenorhyncus.). The technique has been used by other aquariums, including Miami Seaquarium. That Florida facility, like Shedd, is a partner in the Pacific white-sided dolphin cooperative breeding program, and it’s where Piquet became pregnant during a breeding exchange. Trainers there use a dolphin calf puppet to acclimate pregnant females to the presence and sensation of a nursing newborn. The puppet is a repurposed hard-rubber bottlenose dolphin toy that was cosmetically adjusted to look like a Pacific white-sided dolphin. Shedd’s trainers used it as a hand puppet as well as maneuvered it on a pole to simulate calf behaviors.

Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training says it’s hard to be sure if the training was helpful, “but it certainly didn’t hurt. It taught Piquet certain skills, but whether or not she transferred the knowledge to interactions with her calf is hard to know.”

Similarly, during her stay with Miami’s dolphins, Piquet was exposed to a mother with a calf, which might also have been instructive, given dolphins’ ability to learn through observation.

In addition to starting to nurse her calf, Piquet also passed the ultimate new-parent milestone: She finally got some rest. Marine mammal staffers who are monitoring both animals around the clock observed her go into sleep mode, a slow drift with one eye closed in sleep, the other eye open and watching. (New human parents would probably envy her this dual-awareness state.) While she rested, the calf had a chance to swim a little on its own.

Shedd’s dolphin caregivers maintain a cautious optimism, but the weight is on the second word. “There are many milestones ahead, and a lot of things can still go wrong,” says Ken, “but the marine mammal team and the animal health team are very pleased and excited about mom and calf’s progress.”

Read our previous posts on Piquet and her calf.

Karen Furnweger, web editor