Evidence for dolphins getting “high” on puffer fish toxin is weak

by • January 8, 2014 • Dolphin News, Dolphin ScienceComments Off23953

I’ve finally been able to view the much-hyped footage of dolphins getting “high” on the toxin produced by puffer fish which has been making international headlines as of late, and I am not convinced. It’s a sequence from part 2 of the BBC documentary Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, which is set to air on January 9th.

While promoting the documentary, the zoologist associated with the production – Rob Pilley – gave an interview to the Sunday Times where he stated that after “chewing the puffer gently and passing it around, [the dolphins] began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection.” According to Pilley, the “trance-like state” that the dolphins entered was a result of their “purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating.”

Here is a video clip from the documentary of the behavior he is talking about:

Keep in mind that this is the only evidence of dolphins “getting high” on puffer fish toxin that is known to exist. There are no observations of this behavior reported in the peer-reviewed literature, and no other popular accounts of this happening that I am aware of.

So is the dolphins’ behavior in this video sequence convincing evidence that the dolphins were “high” on puffer fish toxin?

Not really.

In one sequence, a dolphin is swimming by the camera while the narrator (David Tennant) suggests that “they appear totally blissed out by the whole experience.” The image on screen is of a dolphin with its eye half-closed – giving it the appearance of being super stoned (see below image).

Dolphin squinting

But this, I’m afraid, is some artistic license being taken by the producers. Dolphins eyes will close like this when they are exposed to bright light (i.e., squinting), or when relaxed. It is not evidence of a dolphin being “high.” Given how sunny it was in this sequence, I can only assume the dolphin’s eye was affected by the light levels. A quick Google search for dolphin images will turn up any number of squinting dolphins (like this or this).

What about the sequence showing dolphins “hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection?” Is this an unusual behavior for dolphins? Not really. If they are looking at their reflections (which is impossible to say from the footage), it would not be anything out of the ordinary. As dolphin cognition researcher Diana Reiss pointed out “”I can tell you that when they’re not intoxicated, they are also fascinated by their reflection.” In other words, this is fairly typical dolphin behavior and not direct evidence of intoxication.

They might not even be looking at their reflections, however. It looks more like they are playing with something floating at the surface – possibly with the puffer fish. In any event, hovering upside down or vertical near the water’s surface – whether looking at their reflections or playing with objects – is pretty common dolphin behavior. Here’s a clip from my own research organization’s footage of a (sober) dolphin doing something similar – hanging vertically in the water, blowing bubbles, and making whistling noises.

It should also be pointed out that there is nothing unusual about dolphins playing with puffer fish by passing them back and forth (similar footage can be found here and here). In fact, dolphins play with all sorts of different sea creatures in this way – fish, octopuses, crustaceans, etc., but also objects like seaweed or plastic bags. They often play games like “keep away” with each other (and with human swimmers).

Consider also that it is impossible to tell if the puffer fish is releasing any toxin at all. The footage shows dolphins gently grabbing the fish as opposed to “chewing” on it. I don’t know much about puffer fish, but I am pretty sure that most of the neurotoxin they produce is located in their internal organs, which means simply mouthing the fish is unlikely to result in any/much toxin being released.

But let’s say that the dolphins were somehow able to extract some toxin from the fish. Would this result in them “getting high?” Does puffer fish toxin have an “intoxicating” effect on dolphins (or other animals)? We simply don’t know the answer to this question. Christie Wilcox has argued quite convincingly that “getting high” from tetrodotoxin (the neurotoxin puffer fish release) is probably not a thing. Exposure to the toxin is more likely to make an animal feel numb (in small doses), paralyzed (in medium doses), or dead (in high doses), as opposed to “high.” In any event, it might be that dolphins are immune to tetrodotoxin – feeling no effects whatsoever. Plenty of aquatic predators are able to consume puffer fish without being troubled/affected by this toxin (like this tiger shark – which is seemingly immune to tetrodotoxin given how often these sharks consume puffer fish). The bottom line is that we don’t have a clue as to how tetrodotoxin affects dolphins.

Are dolphins the kind of animal that might enjoy getting high off of psychoactive chemical substances? Sure. Are dolphins intelligent enough to figure out a way to extract puffer fish toxin without killing themselves? Sure. Do dolphins get high off of puffer fish toxin? Nobody knows. This documentary is not providing us with conclusive evidence. That being said, I think the footage in Dolphins: Spy in the Pod is really quite good, and recommend that you watch it if you get a chance. But take the accompanying narrative (and overly confident headlines about dolphins getting high on puffer fish) with a grain of salt.

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