Do Stoned Dolphins Give ‘Puff Puff Pass’ A Whole New Meaning?

By Christie Wilcox | December 30, 2013 8:00 am

You would always be smiling, too, if you were high as a kite.
Photo by Flickr user jeffk42

The BBC will be airing a cool new underwater documentary on Thursday called Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, where carefully disguised cameras were used to film the daily lives of everyone’s favorite marine mammals. But the most interesting detail seems to have been leaked on Sunday: during the documentary, some of the dolphins reportedly used a pufferfish to get stoned.

“Even the brightest humans have succumbed to the lure of drugs and, it seems, dolphins are no different,” said The Sunday Times. The article goes on to describe how the team got footage of dolphins gently harassing a pufferfish, which led to the dolphins entering “a trance-like state after apparently getting “high” on the toxin.”

“After chewing the puffer and gently passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection,” said Rob Pilley, zoologist and one of the producers of the documentary. “This was a case of young dolphins purposefully experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating.” And so it would seem that we can add drug use to the long list of dolphin bad behaviors, (a list which includes bullying, rape and murder, for the record; illicit drug use seems a minor offense in comparison).

It sounds too awesome to be true—which means it probably is. 

I’m not convinced. Dolphins are curious and intelligent, so I have no doubt that they would investigate a strange animal like a puffer. They might see what happens, explore the texture, taste, or smell of this novel creature in their midst, as they do in this video:

But do they intentionally harass them to get high? I doubt it. I guess it’s possible—but if they do, they’re playing a very deadly game, and one that I doubt is much fun for anyone involved.

When harassed, pufferfish first are true to their names and enlarge their bodies to make themselves less palatable. But if that’s not enough, they have the ability to secrete tetrodotoxin (TTX) to ward off potential predators.

The argument being made by The Sunday Times (and the filmmakers, it seems) is that dolphins are intentionally using TTX to get “high”. I just don’t buy it. A curious bunch accidentally indulging in a little puffer poison? Sure. But I’m to believe that dolphins are using tetrodotoxin regularly to get baked? Or even worse, include these toxic treats as a part of their “diet“? No way. Not even dolphins are crazy enough to take that risk.

Tetrodotoxin simply doesn’t make sense as a drug (and let’s be honest—if it did, humans would be snorting it off bathroom counters already). In very, very, very low doses, tetrodotoxin causes numbness, tingling, and the slight lightheadedness that fugu, the Japanese preparation of raw pufferfish flesh, is known for. I guess it’s possible to see how one might relate these mild effects to the “high” feeling that comes from THC, the main ingredient in marijuana*, but it’s a stretch to say the least. Every illicit drug has one thing in common: they alter minds. It’s right there in the definition of narcotic. Tetrodotoxin, however, doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier; it doesn’t change perception or enhance sensation. People get poisoned with TTX every year, and there’s a reason you don’t hear anyone describing the experience as a ‘high’: that’s not how tetrodotoxin works.

It's right there in the definition.

Mind-altering is right there in the definition of narcotic, according to Merriam-Webster
—one thing that TTX doesn’t do.

Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin that shuts down sodium channels, silencing neural activity. In low doses, it numbs. In slightly higher ones, it paralyzes. In between it slows heart rate, plummets blood pressure, and causes respiratory distress. It’s a poison, not a party drug. There is nothing fun about it.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, tetrodotoxin doesn’t make sense as a narcotic because it is far more deadly than any of the substances used recreationally. For all the stink you hear about illicit drugs, they’re harmless in comparison. THC is a gentle compound that acts as a relaxant and appetite stimulant. For a person to die from orally ingesting marijuana, they would have to eat 1 lb or so of the most potent pot on the market in one sitting (which is probably why there has never been a case of fatal THC overdose). Tetrodotoxin, on the other hand, killed 179 people and poisoned another 467 in Japan alone from 1974 to 1983.

It might not look like much, but tetrodotoxin is one of the deadliest chemicals on Earth.
Image from Wikipedia.

Milligram-for-milligram, tetrodotoxin is 120,000 times as deadly as cocaine, 40,000 times as deadly as meth, and more than 50 million times as deadly as THC. It is tens to hundreds of times more lethal than the venoms of the most notorious animals in the world including the widow spiders and the black mamba. It’s more potent than VX nerve gas, formaldehyde, or even ricin. It is, quite literally, one of the most toxic compounds known to man. It is not a substance to be taken lightly.

Even if we give the dolphins their weight advantage, as mammals, it still would only take a few milligrams of TTX to kill one—a dose which, when provoked, puffers can secrete. Once poisoned, it can take up to an hour to begin feeling the effects, which start with numbness, tingling and lightheadedness. Quickly, things get much, much worse.

Paralysis spreads from the face throughout the body, to the point where any movement becomes difficult and even resting is described as uncomfortable. Muscles weaken, speech slurs, and breathing becomes labored. Within an hour or two, victims can lose feeling and control of their entire body. Around four to six hours after a lethal dose, the victim’s respiratory system succumbs.

Sublethal doses are no picnic, either. Some have described becoming completely paralyzed head to toe, unable to move yet fully conscious, an aware and alert mind trapped in a motionless body. Because TTX doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, the mind is clear, unaffected. “The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death,” says the FDA. It’s a particularly terrifying state of mind referred to by physicians as cerebromedullospinal disconnection, pseudocoma, or, most simply, locked-in syndrome.

I find it tough to believe that dolphins are so careful that they can walk the fine line between tingly lips and maddening paralysis, especially when different individuals of the same species of pufferfish can carry vastly different amounts of toxin in their tissues. Instead, what I hear in the BBC’s description is naive animals learning a hard lesson: soon after ‘puffing’ on puffer, young male dolphins were filmed behaving strangely, even near-motionless at the surface. It doesn’t sound like a happy high; it sounds like the first stages of tetrodotoxin-induced paralysis, with the dolphins instinctively (and perhaps luckily) hovering in shallow water to retain the ability to breathe. It seems unlikely that they interact with puffers like this routinely. Even if the dolphins were pleasurably intoxicated, the inability to react quickly would leave them dangerously exposed to predators like large sharks, not to mention the inherent risks to their lives associated with the toxin involved.

While dolphins may play with puffers to see them expand, or even foolishly put one in their mouths on occasion, I doubt they’re “using” them with any regularity. Instead, the young male dolphins that were caught on camera by this crew probably played a little too rough with their toy and paid an uncomfortable price for their mistake. Lucky for them, only a hidden camera was watching.

That said, as a scientist that studies the evolution of toxins and toxicity, I kind of hope I’m wrong on this one. The use of tetrodotoxin by dolphins would be really, really cool, especially since it seems to make so little sense. Not a whole lot is known about recreational drug use in animals, and every case tells scientists something new. From a philosophical standpoint, what does it say about intelligent beings if, as a group, we cannot resist getting high? How much are we willing to risk to experiment with dangerous drugs, and what are the evolutionary costs? Though, personally, I’m more interested in the nitty-gritty questions, like how does the recreational use of toxins alter the evolution or expression of the toxins themselves in the animals that produce them?

Still shot from the upcoming BBC special Dolphins: Spy In The Pod

Still shot from the upcoming BBC special Dolphins: Spy in the Pod

Lastly, if dolphins do puff for pleasure, theres one more question I have to ask: could someone please pass Flipper a joint already? That poor fish has suffered enough.

*if you’ve never smoked marijuana. I’m just sayin‘. 

  • Uncle Al

    (Flipper was Lassie in a rubber dolphin suit, plus a rebreather.)

    Onward Colorado, puffing dawn to dusk.
    People queuing daily, hoping for some musk.
    Tourist trade exploding. “come in, have a toke.”
    State financial burdens vanished up in smoke.
    War on Drugs awak’ning, Homeland Severity!
    ATF and Justice, bloody penury.
    Load your weapons, boyos, light up and inhale,
    They can’t take your freedom, time to vote not fail..

    Dolphin babies must be saved from second-hand puffer. Come, let us legislate then enforce.

  • Bill Skaggs

    I agree that TTX as a drug makes no sense. However, there are a number of examples of recreational drugs that are deadly poisons in higher concentrations — nicotine for instance.

    • Christie Wilcox

      Well, *all* recreational drugs are deadly if the dose is high enough. But the difference here is that TTX is deadly at really, really, really, really low doses. Nicotine, per your example, is almost 150,000 times less lethal than TTX. The deadlier a compound is, the less utility it has as a recreational substance because the odds of screwing the pooch and killing oneself are too high to be worth any fun effects. Though, in this case, I don’t really know what fun effects it could even have… the idea of being near-death, trapped in my own body isn’t my idea of “fun”.

      • manicdee

        Autoerotic asphyxiation is deadly too, but humans do that for laughs.

        Sushi can be deadly, but humans still eat it for fun.

        Oleander is regarded as one of the most toxic plants around, yet people still grow it in neighbourhoods with children present.

        Alcohol is a poison, but humans still drink it.

        I feel you are too fixated on narcotics and perhaps are not open to other possibilities. Wouldn’t a feeling of numbness have some novelty value to a being whose entire existence involves the sensation of water on their skin? Why do dolphins leap in the air? Could it be that they find the feeling of air (or “emptiness”) on their skin interesting?

        Humans pursue novelty for the sake of novelty, even when the only things that are novel to them are dangerous. In some cases they are thrill seekers: they get their endorphin rush from doing dangerous things and challenging their fear.

        What’s to say that puffer-fish-chewing isn’t an equivalent to autoerotic asphyxiation?

        Perhaps this was a ‘safety lesson’ where an experienced dolphin shows the younger dolphins how to safely handle the puffer fish so they can have an experience of how dangerous the fish is without dying from it.

        Of course one observation of puffer-fish-chewing doesn’t make it a “dolphin habit.”

        • jh

          “Autoerotic asphyxiation is deadly too, but humans do that for laughs.”

          A common practice among people that have been sniffing gasoline since birth (a result of a helpful parenting technique where the parent places a ragged soaked with gasoline on a baby’s face to get it to stop crying and go to sleep).

      • Candie

        Humans use drugs everyday that cause them to be “stuck” in their own bodies…like Ketamine and other tranquilizers/anesthetics. They also “huff” toxic chemicals that aren’t considered narcotics which can cause oneself to lose bodily functions and pee/poo on themselves…yet people think this is “fun”. Millions of people everyday put their lives at risk of overdose, rape, robbery, and murder when getting intoxicated. And when heroin addicts hear that someone died from a particularly strong batch, that’s the batch they want their next fix from? So why would we assume that dolphins wouldn’t put themselves at extreme risk of death just to get high…when people do it everyday? Because they’re at risk of getting eaten, overdosing, becoming paralyzed? This is your reasoning….when millions of people everyday overdose and die from drug use.
        I’m not saying that dolphins ARE using puffer fish to get high….but I’m also not saying they AREN’T. That would be presumptuous. And until you are a dolphin and have tried “puffing” for yourself or learn to talk to a dolphin…you will never know exactly why they do this.

        • jvaljon1

          I’d assume that the dolphin not being human, that TTX doesn’t do to it what it does to people – namely, kills them. In case that I’m wrong, however, those who eat dolphin (if any) now have another reason to beware…Flipper may just be carrying a deadly bite of his own

      • Kelly Loomis

        Not all recreational drugs are deadly. Heard of marijuana?

        • Christie Wilcox

          If you were to eat over a lb of high-THC marijuana, it would kill you, so in that sense even marijuana is deadly (though as I noted in the piece, no one has ever died from overdosing). Heck, water is deadly, too, if you drink enough of it – it’s called water intoxication, and it’s extremely rare, but it happens. The average adult would have to drink somewhere around 7 or 8 liters at once, but it is possible to die from too much water. Point is, dose is what matters, and TTX is one of the deadliest substances known to man.

          • Kelly Loomis

            The fact that there is no proof that overdosing on marijuana can kill you makes me feel confident in the fact I can claim it does not. I know people can overdose on water. You stated “all recreational drugs are deadly.” Water is not a recreational drug. Marijuana has never been proven to be fatal.

          • Daniel Kim

            if you OD on marijuana, that means you died Kelly lol. It’s basically impossible to do so because you’d have to consume about 10 million dollars worth of marijuana in 15 minutes.

          • Kelly Loomis

            I know. That’s why I felt safe stating you couldn’t OD on it.

          • Kelly Loomis

            Plus I just read how the body metabolizes it so even if one was to consume a metric ton it would’ve stopped the “getting high” effect and start a sobering effect. We are on the same side of the coin on this debate. Why are you picking a fight with me? I just stated in the two comments I made before you responded to me you couldn’t OD on marihuana. You don’t have to prove it to me. I’ve been saying that!

          • Daniel Kim

            8. At present it is estimated that marijuana’s LD-50 is around 1:20,000 or 1:40,000. In layman terms this means that in order to induce death a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in one marijuana cigarette. NIDA-supplied marijuana cigarettes weigh approximately .9 grams. A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response.

            Not sure where you would find 1500 founds of marijuana. lol

    • looselycoupled

      “I agree that TTX as a drug makes no sense. However, there are a number
      of examples of recreational drugs that are deadly poisons in higher
      concentrations — nicotine for instance.”

      That is not exactly an insightful comment. Nearly every compound is a “deadly poison” at some particular concentration.
      The most prominent characteristic that determines whether a compound will be used as a recreational drug is dopamine release in the Nucleus Accumbens (ala the pleasure center). (There are obviously some exceptions, such as the psychedelics which have a whole range of effects besides the release of dopamine)

      Given that TTX doesn’t cross the mammalian BBB, I don’t see how the experience of ingesting it could be described as “getting stoned” or getting a “high” of any form…

      • m12345

        Perhaps, but until we find some seaweed the dolphins swim through constantly or eat…. we can only imagine they are living normal intelligent lives. Good TV but the hypothesis needs confirming.

  • Guest

    “Lastly, if dolphins do puff for pleasure, there’s one more
    question I have to ask: could someone please pass Flipper a joint
    already? That poor fish has suffered enough”.
    Dolphins are not fish, they’re mammals.

    • Diana

      I don’t think it was refering to the the Dolphin as a fish, “pass Flipper (the dolphin) a joint already? That poor fish (the puffer) has suffered enough.”

    • Leslie Bianchi

      empathizing with the pufferfish may not have occurred to you but that’s what Christie is doing

  • Christos Themistocles Fotinako

    These criticisms seem are mostly Anthropocentric. How a dolphin’s metabolic system in water reacts to a puffer fish’s poison, which may be emitted in extremely low doses, should not use humans as a benchmark. For all we know this behavior might represent some type of symbiotic relationship between the puffer fish and dolphins. What we are tagging anthropocentrically as “stoned” might in fact be some therapeutic behavior, which, at a stretch perhaps, might also extend to the puffer fish. The use of terms like “bad behavior”, including rape, suggests people such as the author are a long way from understanding dolphins, restricted narrowly by a highly anthropocentric perspective. I suppose it makes it more fun to use this perspective and is easier, but dolphins live in a different world effectively. They don’t even wear clothes. Does this make them nudists?

    • Jeff See

      Damn nudist dolphins! Heathens!

    • George Penn Stokes

      I doubt the pufferfish is getting much out of being chewed on by a large inquisitive marine carnivore.

      I’m sure the mouse your tabby’s batting around on the porch mat is just doing pilates.

      As for accusations of anthropocentrism regarding observations on Dolphin behaviour; we have a word for when one animal forcibly copulates with another; that word is “rape”.

      And by this definition, yes Bottle Nosed Dolphins have been seen to “rape” other dolphins, of either sex, but most often female, and related marine mammals like porpoises, often in gangs, and often with a significant degree of violence; battering with their hardened beaks and biting with their sharp fish-tearing teeth.

      Your accusations I suppose have a basis in a desire to be objective, but they also lack common sense.

      • Chris Fotis

        Rape is a legal term, George. The cockroach rapist? Now, go wipe your nose, Georgie-boy.

        • Prophet

          How about the “Clinton Rapist?”

  • Christos Themistocles Fotinako

    Christie, you need to see someone about your attitude to dolphins. Are you a frustrated wannabe mermaid who feels envious?

  • Thaddeus MacLaren

    Dear Wilcox and readers, while it is indeed appropriate to approach science with a skeptical, questioning air, it is equally inappropriate to judge the value of TTX for Delphinidae through the prism of humanity. Dolphin curiosity led to their ingestion of fugu fish, not unlike how the ancients ingested their local fauna and happened upon herbal medicines. I am no toxicologist, mind you, but is it so hard to conceive of TTX benefiting dolphin users? I suspect Cannabis sativa played a role in the cultural explosion in ancient India; something similar may be unfolding here, but let’s not jump to conclusions. It was said that TTX is a toxin and not a narcotic. Do we know that that the toxin is non-narcotic for the Delphinidae biology? I don’t know. But I do know that even if we assume TTX to be solely acting as a neurotoxin, then we can conclude possible utility for the species. Bear with me here: I assume that these dolphins are capable of tasting TTX, that their use of echolocation in the desert of the seas offers some safety, and that their intelligence offers the species rudimentary communication akin to human ancestors, and that Delphinidae view the world through the lens of a dolphin and not a person. What if these creatures were using TTX solely as a paralysis (i.e. just to numb themselves up and relax a while)? If they were habitually, temporarily paralyzing themselves, what might they experience? Until we put an fMRI on one and decode their neurology, we won’t know. But what do you, Wilcox, suspect could happen in a mind that has a disconnect with movement and touch? In humans this can run the gamut from madness to clarity on the level of Stephen Hawking. What about a primitive Delphinidae mind? I suspect it resembles more ALS for Hawking; if the parts of their brain dedicated to moving and feeling go without their usual input, what do you think these dolphins might come to deduce about the world they view from the perspective of an unfeeling coil? Might they utilize higher (pun intended) thought? And in a species with rudimentary communication skills, could those deductions be told to other dolphins and retold to the subsequent generation? If dolphins have discovered a drug which can increase fluid thought, might they be developing the capacity to conceive the foundations of culture and civilization via fugu-eating shamans? Food for thought, Wilcox. Sincerely, Thaddeus MacLaren. PS If you are skeptical of the individual and evolutionary benefits of certain narcotic consumption, I suggest we meet up in Montevideo or Washington state, roll up a J, and further the dialogue on the matter.

  • Jennifer Reynoso

    Isn’t a fish’s short-term memory span incredibly short anyway? That puffer will probably forget all about the ordeal. Considering the things some dolphins undergo, I wouldn’t blame them for wanting an “escape”.

  • subdued joy

    Puffer Fish is called Fugu in Japan. The Japanese eat it. There is a risk of dying from eating Puffer Fish if it isn’t prepared properly. The toxins must be removed to make it suitable for human consumption.

  • Italics Mine

    how dare dolphins try to get high. they should be slapped in fin-cuffs and taken away to the hoosegow! for ever. and ever!!!!!!

    • Malcolm J. Brenner

      The hoosegow? That would be, what, Sea World? Already happened, IM!

  • Mycosys

    The thing that bothers me here is that I would have thought the CHANCE, just the prospect that another mammal had potentially developed an evolutionary immunity to something it encounters regularly but which is also one of the most toxic substances on the planet would be vastly exciting to ANY toxicologist, biologist, evolutionary biologist or neurologist. The chance that they may not just be immune but may even be metabolising it into some other substance that benefits them or even just that they respond so differently to us is fascinating, and if so could give us a wealth of information about how these neurotransmitter channels work in ALL mammals. ‘Nope, not buying it’ seems like the least scientific response you could come up with!

  • jeff81999

    The author presumes the drug hits dolphins the same as humans. Almost certainly not true, as anybody who has researched the use of human anti-inflammatories for their dog can tell you.

    One would think too that a creature (dolphin) evolved in a marine habitat would have long ago evolved some response better than death to a pufferfish toxin.

    • Christie Wilcox

      By that logic, the pufferfish’s toxin would be useless, as every marine creature should have evolved a defense to it. Instead, we clearly see that the dolphins do not consume pufferfish, as doing so *would* kill them. That is their evolved defense: they don’t eat the poisonous fish.

      Then the question becomes whether they get high off of it, and physiologically, that just doesn’t make sense. We have tested the effects of TTX in a slew of other mammals, not just ourselves, and the results are the same—its an incredibly potent sodium channel inhibitor in every mammal that it has been given to. Universally, it paralyzes and kills, with consistent efficiency. Since the dolphins *aren’t* eating pufferfish, there’s no selective pressure for them to have developed sodium channels that don’t react to the toxin. And we know that their sodium channels can be lethally affected by other toxins—those from harmful algal blooms, for example. Why would they have evolved a defense to a toxin that they don’t encounter unless they choose to (TTX), yet remain susceptible to one that kills them every year?

      As a side note, the universal, potent nature of TTX is actually what makes it such a useful lab compound—it works on sodium channels from all kinds of species, so we can use to the study signaling pathways that involve those channels.

      • Bruce Cohen

        A few things….first, we know TTX works on a few species Na channels (human, rat, mouse, possibly a couple more), but the pufferfish itself is not susceptible because of
        mutations in the mouth of the target Na channel. Do dolphins might have a similar NaV channel? I don’t think the answer is known. Second, just because we can’t explain something doesn’t make it not so….this is a logical fallacy. Even if you don’t understand the mechanism of TTX on the dolphins, there is evidence for this behavior and they clearly experience some psycho-physiological effects (which in humans, we’d call a “high”). Third, adaptive pressures are much more nuanced than made out here. One or two point mutations in the outer mouth of Na channels could easily reduce the affinity of TTX 100-fold….again, this is seen for other co-evolved systems. And finally, a key point: humans do consume TTX for the high. People who know more about Japanese culture can weigh in, but my understanding is that Fugu is considered such a daredevil delicacy in Japan precisely because tiny amounts of residual TTX produce a certain sensation.

        • jh

          I’m no toxicologist either, but I’m not buying your argument.

          There are hundreds of plants that have deadly toxins that few if any animals have evolved to be able to eat. The fact that something deadly is in the environment doesn’t force evolution to find a chemical solution to the problem. As Christie points out, most animals’ solution to plants or other animals with deadly toxins is to simply avoid the toxin. If the result were otherwise, there would be no toxins because they wouldn’t be effective.

          And, of course, there is no rule that says evolution can find an answer to every threat to existence.

          Beyond that, we have, apparently, a single instance of dolphins supposedly getting stoned on puffer fish toxin, and one that’s being used, apparently, to promote a TV show. Color me skeptical.

          Overall, the weight of the evidence is heavily in Christie’s favor. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. When that proof is available, I’ll tip my hat.

          • Bruce Cohen

            If you’d like to see molecular details of how certain organisms’ Na channels have developed resistance to pufferfish toxins, you can check out this recent review: and the papers it cites. You can also run a pubmed or google scholar search of your own…..apparently there are other mechanisms as well, such as circulating proteins that bind the toxin.

            I certainly did not say that all toxins have prompted the development of resistance mechanisms. And I did say that I don’t know if dolphins have evolved these resistant mutations through adaptive pressures. A pubmed search of that turns up no hits.

            Is there any evidence that dolphins avoid pufferfish? That is what the original piece suggested should happen. Obviously that would need to be weighed against this video, which is prima facie evidence at least one group of dolphins that actively courts pufferfish. That it makes more sense to some people that dolphins should avoid pufferfish isn’t evidence of anything, except maybe flawed reasoning.

          • UnGorille

            jh : Prior to develop a resistance to toxins, most animals simply learn to avoid the plants/animals they know to contain these toxins. It seems unlikely to me that dolphins would’nt know these fishes are toxic, and yet they’re litterally chewing it ! I think that the dolphins doing this to purposely trigger the release of TTX to get high is likely.

          • Registered User

            Ooh, this was posted a long time ago. Oh well.

            In regards to Bruce Cohen’s reference: It is for two species, neither of which are mammals, and both of which regularly eat pufferfish. Showing that resistance -can- evolve says nothing about resistance evolving in dolphins.

            So far he’s claimed that either dolphins are not endangered by TTX or that they like the danger as humans do. Either assumption is baseless.

            Given that there isn’t any direct study on TTX in dolphins, the best evidence is their susceptibility to other related neurotoxins, which Christine Wilcox already pointed out.

            I agree with Wilcox that it goes too far to assume we know the motivations of the dolphins in the documentary until there is more evidence.

  • gendotte

    RE: the dolphin and the whale. Maybe it was like the story of the rooster and the peacock.

  • Bruce Cohen

    The author’s fears of toxicity may be unfounded, because the dolphin sodium channels are unlikely to be identical to the rats or mice those toxicity number came from, and in fact may respond completely differently. This wouldn’t be at all surprising, if the dolphins have evolved to survive random encounters with fish that produce this toxin. There is an analogous case of birds’ TRPV1 channels not responding to the capsaicin in chili peppers the way other mammals do, with the idea that they co-evolved to be able to eat and disperse seeds from hot peppers. And keep in mind that dolphins are much larger, so that a couple of chomps on a puffer fish might be the perfect dose. The author’s toxicity numbers in comparison to other drugs are meaningless if dolphin metabolism is different than that of rats, which surely it is.

    The author’s finger-wagging at the dolphins getting high is a oddly puritanical, and the attempts to get into the heads of whether the dolphins are enjoying their high are bizarre. Assuming the dolphins experience this as purely a numbing sensation (likely a bad assumption), there are lots of numbing recreational and legal drugs. There are many examples of animals using mind-altering substances like this, from catnip to eating fermented fruits for the alcohol. Who are you to judge? This distinction between good and bad mind-altering drugs is largely political and has little moral or rational basis.

  • Daniel Weir

    If I’m not mistaken there is clinical research going on just now for the use of ttx as an analgesic in terminal cancer pateients. Can’t mind where so yes as the article suggests in humans the idea of use recreationally would be a bit far fetched as people in the thread have stated. But there could be use of the “toxic” chemical , all just depends on the dose !

  • firedancer13

    The ‘scientist’ approving of animal research….let’s see the dolphins conducting their own research on her. Amazing how many humans believe we have a right to use animals as research ‘material’ instead of regarding each animal life as meaningful. We can learn far more watching and studying that we’ll ever discover in a research lab.

  • Madena Bennett

    You started off this article with so much potential…but you totally ruined it for yourself…and us the poor readers. Ever heard the phrase “one man’s meat is another man’s poison?” You contradict even yourself in this article. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.. Quite simply Christie- you got what you hoped for. You are wrong.

  • Guest

    To me, it seems that you are entirely too caught up in the fact that drugs are bad. You see dolphins “getting high” and you think those damn dolphins are always up to no good. Just like you see a bunch of kids smoking pot and think those damn kids are always up to no good. I think if you put all of these preconceived ideas aside, you may be able to make a better argument. Maybe the dolphins aren’t actually getting high, maybe they are, either way you’re argument should not be that these dolphins are participating in “bad behavior”. Saying “it doesn’t sound like a happy high” means that you don’t actually care whether they are getting high or not, you just think getting high shouldn’t be fun. A mind altering toxin can give one an experience that helps one learn and open ones mind. Maybe, just maybe, dolphins are paralyzing themselves with this TTX and meditating into a state that can take them into other dimensions where they are actually creatures of intelligence beyond our comprehension. You have turned an article that was meant to be skeptical of scientific information into a debate about whether or not drugs are bad, for humans or dolphins.

  • Idealmodification

    haha trying to say the fugu eaters who like the numbing/ tingling sensation is not the same as a recreational drug using.
    It doesn’t matter if it passes a blood brain barrier or whatever, in the users perspective its still being used as a recreational drug.

  • saraboulos

    Perhaps — and this is merely a hypothesis — the dolphins have a similar sensory experience on tetrodotoxin as do humans, who are known to consume pufferfish sushi laced with pufferfish organs containing the toxin — ?
    I recall something about a tingling sensation and numbness.


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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