Teenagers getting high. That’s not so shocking, right? What if I told you though that scientists have just discovered that teenage dolphins do it, too?
Spy cameras used to film a new BBC documentary, Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, caught some extraordinary behavior over the past few years when they observed a group of juvenile dolphins chewing on and passing around pufferfish. What could prompt such strange communal behavior? It appears the dolphins have discovered a secret about the pufferfish.
When threatened, pufferfish can excrete a powerful neurotoxin: tetrodotoxin. The substance, which can be lethal in high doses but in smaller quantities is relatively benign, effectively blocks neurons in the brain from firing and therefore produces a narcotic effect. It is currently being investigated as a possible way to treat pain in cancer patients.
The teenage dolphins appeared to be “chewing puff,” as I’m dubbing it, for no other reason than experiencing an altered state of consciousness.
“This was a case of young dolphins purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating. They began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection,” zoologist Rob Pilley, who was involved in the production, is quoted as saying. “It reminded us of that craze a few years ago when people started licking toads to get a buzz, especially the way they hung there in a daze afterwards. It was the most extraordinary thing to see.”
The project saw scientists use a range of fake animals specially fitted with hidden cameras to spy on the dolphins, hoping to get unique insights into the pod’s natural behavior. In total, the documentary makers gathered 900 hours of footage, highlights of which will be shown in a new serious on the BBC in the new year.
Here’s the trailer for the show:
And here’s a video of the turtle spy camera in action:
So Dolphins Get High! So What?
Firstly, it has to be said that we have to be careful about applying human characteristics to other animals’ behavior. That said, according to the scientists involved, this phenomenon was observed a number of times, so they feel confident in saying this was a deliberate act and that the dolphins were exploiting the toxins’ effects on purpose.
Beyond the obvious funny side to this, there is a greater issue at play. For a long time now we’ve known that dolphins are intelligent. Very intelligent. That, in fact, their intelligence and that of other cetaceans is, by many standard gauges, very close to our own. This kind of behavior, then, adds further weight to a growing body of evidence that limiting what we think of as personhood to just human animals is rather arbitrary.
In 2010 scientists from around the world met to discuss the apparent self-awareness of cetaceans and agreed that public policy must begin to reflect the fact that, at the very least, cetaceans are “person-like” and appear capable of what was once classed to be entirely human characteristics. How this should inform things like us keeping cetaceans in captivity is a matter that is being left up to individual governments, but the import is clear: cetaceans appear self aware and are emotionally intelligent, so confining them in this way can reasonably assumed to be detrimental and even cruel.
For animal rights, this kind of evidence gathering and interpretation is important. While most corners of the world do not even contemplate using cetaceans as test subjects, there are still places where dolphins, porpoises and whales are hunted and killed for their meat and the products that can be made from their bodies.
For example, Japanese whaling ships are infamous for their annual activity of catching and often times brutally butchering small whales, dolphins and porpoises that are found along Japan’s coastlines. This is in addition to Japan’s even more prolific Antarctic whaling expeditions. Combined, these activities have brought several cetacean species near extinction. Japan has been made aware of the strong evidence for how intelligent cetaceans are, yet the country continues to hold to this kind of practice as “tradition.”
Still, there has been progress in 2013.
While news reports that India had recognized dolphins as deserving human rights somewhat missed the mark, it is true that for narrow purposes India’s environment and animal protection authorities have designated dolphins as “non-human persons.”
As such, cetaceans will be given a higher status, and anything that could stand to impact them will be assessed more closely than before.
It is hoped that in the next few years evidence like the “dolphins doing drugs” meme will be so startlingly incontrovertible that policy makers will no longer be able to ignore the issue of cetacean rights. Though, it has to be said, on the day those deserved rights are afforded, it would be nice if the dolphins aren’t completely stoned.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.