Friday, May 08, 2009

Adaptive male lactation?

It has long been known that male mammals, including male humans, are physiologically capable of lactating. Screw with a man's physiology by giving him the right hormones, or the wrong series of starvation and then plenty, and he may start to produce milk. No one, as far as I know, has ever suggested that this is adaptive, that this capacity exists because men gain some reproductive advantage through lactation. Rather, it is usually seen as a result of the fact that we share almost all of our genetic material with females, who do make good use of their lactational prowess. Male lactation across the mammalian world is largely thought to be a side effect of intersexual correlation, the tendency for the two sexes of a species to have similar traits.

I am therefore skeptically excited to read that males of two species of fruit bats, one in Malaysia, and one in Papua New Guinea, are said to have "well-developed lacteriforus ducts and underlying mammary tissue similar to that found in lactating females" and that milk has been "expressed" from a large number of male bats.

It is not actually known whether these males are feeding young, and if so how commonly and to what effect, but this is the closest suggestion I have yet seen of the possibility of adaptive male lactation.


Annaliese said...

In Mammalogy, Eileen told the story of the Malaysian species and in the end it turned out that they didn't nurse and the only ones that lactated were near agricultural orchards and were exposed to hormone-mimicking pesticides.

Dan Levitis said...

Interesting. I wonder if the male humans in that area also lactate?