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Dolphins Don't Just Eat Puffer Fish, They Just Want to Get High

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By Brennan Forrest - - 5 Mins Read
A dolphin surfacing from the water
Fabrizio Frigeni/Unsplash |

In a new extraordinary documentary filmed, young dolphins were seen carefully manipulating a certain kind of puffer fish which releases a nerve toxin if provoked.


Humans are not the only creatures that suffer from substance abuse problems. Elephants get drunk on overripe fruit, Horses eat hallucinogenic weeds, and big-horn sheep love narcotic lichen. Some researchers think Monkeys' attraction to sugar-rich and ethanol-containing fruit may explain our attraction to alcohol.


Dolphins have now joined that list as Footage from a new documentary series, reveals how dolphins get high off potent defensive chemicals produced by puffer fish which they eject when threatened. 


Large doses of the toxin can be deadly, in small amounts it is known to produce a narcotic effect. However, the question now is, how do dolphins get high on puffer fish? 


The dolphins appeared to have worked out how to make the fish release just the right portion needed by Carefully chewing on the puffer and passing it between one another, the marine mammals then enter what seems to be a state of trance.


After gently chewing the puffer and passing it around, they began behaving most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their reflection.


The dolphins were filmed playing with the puffer, passing it between each other for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time, unlike the fish they had caught as prey which they instantly tore apart.

A puffer fish washed ashore


Rob Pilley, the zoologist and series producer on the crew of "Dolphin: Spy in the Pod" documentary said; "This was a case of young dolphins purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating and that it was the first time the dolphins had been filmed behaving this way.


The Dolphins Are Just Fascinated By Their Reflection In The Water 


As for the dolphins being fascinated by their reflection in the water, Reiss, who has studied how dolphins understand identity after conducting mirror experiments with aquarium animals, says: "I can tell you that when they’re not intoxicated, they are also fascinated by their reflection.


According to the experiment carried out, Dolphins breathe with blow holes which are just on the top of their heads,  so it’s also possible that they were simply coming up to get air, she said, adding that she would have to see the footage first hand to be sure.


The pufferfish toxin also called tetrodotoxin, or TTnd is produced by bacteria and stored in the liver. Some amphibians,  octopuses, and shellfish also dock bacteria that manufacture the toxin.


Reiss has not yet encountered any other instances of such behavior in dolphins, but she says“If it’s true, then, it's incredibly interesting because they’ve joined other large-brained species to use it to get something pleasurable.