ABSTRACT Animals that fast depend on mobilizing lipid stores to power metabolism. Northern elephant seals ( Mirounga angustirostris ) incorporate extended fasting into several life-history stages: development, molting, breeding and lactation. The physiological processes enabling fasting and lactation are important in the context of the ecology and life history of elephant seals. The rare combination of fasting and lactation depends on the efficient mobilization of lipid from adipose stores and its direction into milk production. The mother elephant seal must ration her finite body stores to power maintenance metabolism, as well as to produce large quantities of lipid and protein-rich milk. Lipid from body stores must first be mobilized; the action of lipolytic enzymes and hormones stimulate the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream. Biochemical processes affect the release of specific fatty acids in a predictable manner, and the pattern of release from lipid stores is closely reflected in the fatty acid content of the milk lipid. The content of the milk may have substantial developmental, thermoregulatory and metabolic consequences for the pup. The lactation and developmental patterns found in elephant seals are similar in some respects to those of other mammals; however, even within the limited number of mammals that simultaneously fast and lactate, there are important differences in the mechanisms that regulate lipid mobilization and milk lipid content. Although ungulates and humans do not fast during lactation, there are interesting comparisons to these groups regarding lipid mobilization and milk lipid content patterns.