Some scientists believe that the toxin in the fish can produce a numbing or narcotic effect, putting the dolphins in a trance-like state.
Photo via Flickr user mindgrow
Just as humans have figured out how to harness the hallucinogenic properties of just about anything, dolphins seem to have found a vice of their own. A group of porpoises off the coast of Australia was recently caught passing around blowfish in an apparent attempt to get high, WAtoday reports.
Krista Nicholson, a researcher at Murdoch University who monitors dolphins just south of Perth, noted that the juveniles like to hold puffer fish—known in Australia as "blowies"—in their mouths for a few hours then pass them around because apparently it produces a narcotic effect. Blowfish contain a toxin called tetrodotoxin, which is extremely lethal in humans. However, scientists believe that small doses can put dolphins into a trance-like state.
The phenomenon isn't unheard of. Marine biologist Lisa Steiner noted the observation back in a 1995 paper about bottle-nosed dolphins off the coast of Portugal. The 2014 BBC documentary, Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, is credited for first filming the behavior on camera.
"This was a case of young dolphins purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating," zoologist Rob Pilley, who was involved with the production, told the Sunday Times before the documentary's release. "After chewing the puffer gently and passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection."
Nicholson, however, disputes that the toxin causes a trance, saying that the chemical might just make the dolphins feel numb. She also said that dolphins in the same area play with seagrass or crabs in a similar way as they do with blowfish, so the inflatable creatures might be more of a toy than an intoxicant.
Still there might be an addict in her midst. Nicholson said that one of the dolphins she tracks, named Huubster, has grown especially fond of playing with blowfish. She spotted him continuing to engage in the activity even when the rest of his pod traveled out to sea without him.
Dolphins aren't the only animals that are known to use different substances to have a good time. Reindeer in Siberia are fans of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, that grow wild where they live. (Can you blame them?) And wallabies in Tasmania have been known to eat poppies near their habitat, then run around in circles and pass out. While this may be inevitable for animals in the wild, but that doesn't mean you should give your pets anything stronger than catnip.