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Weening Practices of Rodents: Chinchillas & the Art of "Cheesing"

One of the quite remarkable aspects of lactation that has rarely been highlighted in the mainstream is the formidable practices of weening that vary from species to species.

Here, at the Nogales Lactation Museum, we would like to draw your attention to the historically significant evolution of weening practices in the chinchillas of lower Mongolia.

Chinchillas, as our readers probably know, are not native to Mongolia but rather were introduced to the region aboard ships. This fact is significant because it seems to have exacerbated an evolutionary weening practice for the Mongolian chinchillas that is far less common in other rodents including chinchilla ancestors.

Scientists hypothesize that while aboard the ships and upon embarkment on Mongolian land, the nursing Chinchilla parents increasingly engaged in an effective technique called "cheesing." After a period of healthy nursing of the offspring, the mother releases a specific hormone that signals to the father to briefly nurse. He does not, however, fully digest the mother's milk, but rather houses it briefly within his digestive tract before he regurgitates it. He guards the vomited mixture for a period of approximately 48 hours during which time the moisture evaporates somewhat while the regurgitated milk ferments from the addition of the father's digestive fluids.

Once fermentation is complete, this cheese-like substance is fed to the nursing offspring. In this way, the young learn to eat and digest solid foods, though this weening process takes only a matter of days.

This is a fascinating piece of evolutionary biology and animal anthropology because this cheesing practice of weening does not occur commonly with chinchillas of other regions.

Much research is still needed to look at the impact of this practice on nutrition, longevity, health, and social structures. Once obtained, it might be important to compare those findings to human cultures that eat more versus less fermented milk products like cheese. Once again, we can turn to lactation for the space where art, science, culture, and instinct meet!

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