Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish

By Giulia Graziati, Writer. February 13, 2023
Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish
Image: YouTube BBC Earth

Dolphins are known as much for their intelligence as they are their natural beauty. Although morphologically very different, dolphins share various traits and behaviors which are often more common in human beings than in animal behavior. These traits include the fact that dolphins are very sociable animals that enjoy playing for fun. They are equally known for their curiosity, often approaching human vessels and interacting positively with us. While they are known these almost anthropomorphic behaviors, we may be spurious at the thought of dolphins taking drugs.

At thedailyECO, we explore this possibility by asking are dolphins getting high? We answer this question by looking at the relationship between dolphins and puffer fish, as well as looking at some other relationships between animals and drugs.

You may also be interested in: Difference Between False Killer Whale vs. Orca

Do dolphins take drugs?

Before we delve more deeply into the concept of dolphins getting high, we should clarify our usage of the term. The concept of recreational drug taking for pleasure or creating altered states of consciousness is an anthropocentric one. Our perception of drug use by animals is conditioned by cultural and moral attitudes. We cannot apply the same attitudes to animals, especially as their ability to communicate their feelings is limited.

In the context of taking psychoactive substances, there is evidence that some animals enjoy this activity. Several studies have shown that various species are capable of voluntarily ingesting these substances. One of the main differences is the animal's ability to acquire them.

The question involving whether dolphins are getting high also relies on their acquisition of psychoactive drugs. A series of films produced by the BBC for the documentary series Dolphins - Spy on the Pod. During filming, they discovered a pod of dolphins engaging with a puffer fish in a successful effort to get high. Observing this very particular behavior, it was concluded that the dolphins were using neurotoxins from the puffer fish as a narcotic.

This is not the only time this behavior has been observed. In 1995, a study by researcher Lisa Steiner described a similar behavior in a group of bottlenose dolphins in the Azores islands in Portugal[1]. The BBC documentary was the first time it was filmed.

Although the footage certainly implies dolphins like getting high, this is not the same as affirming it scientifically. Dolphins are known for their playful nature and it is possible they were merely playing with the puffer fish. The neurotoxin release may have led to an inadvertent exposure. Although they seemed to b e placated and enjoying the sensation, it is also unknown how the puffer fish toxin. made the dolphins feel.

Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish - Do dolphins take drugs?
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How do dolphins get high?

Pufferfish have one of the most toxic compounds in existence. It is known as tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that affects nerve transmissions and muscle contractions. It is widely known that ingesting just a small dose of this toxin can be lethal, both for animals and for humans.

When the dolphins are interacting with the puffer fish, they push it along the surface of the sea as playing with a ball. As a form of defense, the puffer fish releases the toxin into the water which dissipates. The dolphins only ingest some of the neurotoxin in the water, causing them to be seen motionless at the water's surface. Their posture is different as they maintain a vertical position, implying they are in a drugged state.

One of the reasons we may be able to say that dolphins are getting high from puffer fish on purpose is due to how they interact with them. The dolphins appear to pass the puffer fish to each other, seemingly allowing each one to ingest some of the toxin. This implies they are encouraging each other to do it, perhaps due to the pleasant psychoactive effect.

In terms of whether dolphins getting high seems to be a genuine phenomenon, the evidence is not conclusive. The fact that dolphins have been seen interacting with puffer fish in this way on more than one occasion implies they know what they are doing. However, this is an implication and there may be something happening about which we are unsure.

Learn more about where dolphins live with our article on what is an aquatic ecosystem?

Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish - How do dolphins get high?
Image: YouTube BBC Earth

Other animals getting high

It is not only dolphins and puffer fish which seem to be involved in narcotic use. There are other species of animals that are in contact with chemical substances that can modify the normal functioning of mind and body. Most of these compounds come from plants and fungi that are available in the animal's natural environment. These behaviors have been visualized in both domestic animals and wild animals.

Some of the most common examples of drug use in animals include:

  • Domestic cat: perhaps the most well-known use of psychoactive substances by animals is domestic cats. They can consume a herb called catnip (Nepeta cataria) which results in various effects. Among them, we can find an enhancement of sexual behavior or even becoming very energetic. Another plant that they can consume with hallucinogenic effects is valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

  • Wallabies: there are stories that mention that these marsupial mammals get high on the poppies (from which opium and its derivatives are obtained) present in the fields of Australia. After consuming them, it is said they often go around in circles as if in a narcotic state. It should be noted that this behavior has not been properly studied and may be a popular myth.

  • Reindeer: biologists have documented reindeer feeding on the Amanita muscaria mushroom, a hallucinogenic mushroom from Siberia and other parts of the world. When consumed, this mushroom modifies the behavior of the animal. When they are under the effects of the fungus, reindeer and their calves become more vulnerable and can be more easily preyed upon by predators.

  • GoatsB goats in Ethiopia and Yemen consume khat leaves, which appear to make them very euphoric. These leaves are known for their psychostimulant properties. In turn, goats in other locations have been observed feeding on the seed or other parts of the mezcal bean plant, also producing hallucinogenic effects.

  • Mandrill: mandrills are the largest monkey species and they can consume the Iboga shrub which is native to equatorial Africa. The bark of its roots is known to have hallucinogenic and central nervous system stimulating properties.

  • Flies: like reindeer, flies can consume the Amanita muscaria fungus. The fungus paralyzes them and puts their survival at risk since they become easy prey for predators such as toads.

Dolphins and puffer fish behaving in this way is only one type of animal interaction. Learn about another with our article on simbiosis in biology.

If you want to read similar articles to Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish, we recommend you visit our Facts about animals category.


1. Steiner, L. (1995). Rough-toothed dolphin, Steno bredanensis: a new species record for the Azores,with some notes on behaviour. Life and Marine Sciences, 13(A), 125-127.

  • Field-Cortázares, J., Calderón-Campos, R., & Seijo, J. L. (2009). Poisoning by puffer fish. Bol Clin Hosp Infant Edo Son, 26(1), 28-32.

  • Mozoncillo, C. M., López, E. M., & Pérez, C. M. (2018). Your pet and other animals also take drugs. Psychologia Latina, Vol. (Especial), 293-295.

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Are Dolphins Getting High? - Dolphins and Puffer Fish
Image: YouTube BBC Earth
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