Immune function in harbor seal mothers and their pups during lactation was studied on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, during the springs of 1989 and 1990. Methods included total white blood cell and differential counts, a Protein A enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) for total immunoglobulin G (IgG) quantification, and functionality testing of lymphocytes in vitro using the T-cell mitogen concanavalin A (ConA). Lymphocyte functionality and total IgG levels were reduced in the mothers at the end of lactation, suggesting a reduction in immune function, possibly as a result of the stress of fasting, or hormonal changes associated with lactation and estrus. By contrast, lymphocyte functionality and total IgG levels in pups were low at birth and higher at the end of lactation. Pups at birth and females late in lactation may therefore be more susceptible to infection by viral and bacterial agents. This study represents the first broad examination of immune function in a free-ranging pinniped population.
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