Animals

Are Aussie Dolphins Getting High on Blowfish?

The cheerful marine mammals have recently been spotted playing with toxic "blowies" in Western Australia, reigniting a question of what the animals get out of it.

A researcher with Murdoch University (MU) has written about new observations of dolphins playing with blowfish off Western Australia and discussed what the behavior might mean.

Writing in Mandurah Mail, two weeks after posting pictures (see above photo) of the encounter to Facebook, biologist Krista Nicholson detailed sightings made of a young dolphin named Huubster tossing a puffed-up blowfish in the air.

Under the aegis of the Mandurah Dolphin Research Project (MDRP) - a partnership between the city of Mandurah, MU and Mandurah Cruises - Nicholson keeps track of dolphin counts in the Peel-Harvey waters off Mandurah and observes how they interact with dolphins in other seas nearby.

"Huubster, a calf born in 2016, was playing with a blowfish for 10 minutes in Dawesville cut yesterday whilst the rest of the group were slowly travelling toward the ocean," the MDRP Facebook post read.

Blowfish, also known as pufferfish among other names, are a family of fish whose majority of species are highly toxic (to most animals and to humans), with skin and internal organs containing the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Try to eat one and it can kill you.

Dolphins have been observed playing with blowfish in the past, with some suggesting - most notably in the 2014 BBC documentary "Dolphins: Spy in the Pod" - that playing with the poisonous fish is akin to a kind of casual drug use by the animals.

Nicholson wrote that dolphins play with other animals besides "blowies," however, and noted that many researchers don't think the levels of tetrodotoxin encountered by the dolphins during contact would be enough to make them feel anything more than a bit numb.

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Huubster was twice witnessed tossing a blowfish and having a grand old time.

"Regardless whether this behavior is play or serves a purpose of getting high," Nicholson wrote, "I find it very interesting to observe, and it certainly made for some fun pictures."

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