‘Puff, puff, pass’: How WA’s dolphins are using blowfish to get high

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By Staff writers

In what can only be described as a youngster doing the ‘puff, puff, pass’, West Australian dolphins may be using blowfish – or ‘blowies’ – to get high, scientists have found.

Murdoch University researcher Krista Nicholson, who monitors dolphins occupying the Peel-Harvey coastal waters off Mandurah, said there were several records of them interacting with blowfish in estuaries and coastal waters around the world.

The young dolphin Huubster tosses a blowfish in the air. Credit:Mandurah Dolphin Research Project

She said that in Australia, scientists had seen juveniles mouthing blowies in the Leschenault estuary in WA’s South West and a sub-adult dolphin carrying an inflated blowie for a few hours in the Kimberley.

Blowies have a lethal toxin called tetrodotoxin, present in their skin, flesh and internal organs.

Some scientists think the blowfish toxins may be used recreationally by dolphins. Credit:Mandurah Dolphin Research Project

If consumed, this toxin can be deadly to predators, including humans.

A BBC documentary, Dolphins – Spy in the Pod, filmed them chewing on a blowie and “passing the puffer fish around”, she said.

According to the documentary, small doses of the toxin have a narcotic effect and the program considered it as recreational drug use by dolphins.

Ms Nicholson said this view was disputed in the scientific community, with some saying the small amounts of tetrodotoxin made the animals feel only numb, not high.

Many dolphins around the world have been sighted playing with blowfish.Credit:Mandurah Dolphin Research Project

She had observed dolphins in the South West using other items such as seagrass or crabs to play with, so it was possible their treatment of blowies was part of the same behaviour.

A calf called Huubster born in the Dawesville Cut in 2016 had taken a special interest in tossing and chewing blowfish lately, Ms Nicholson had observed.

On January 24, while other group members travelled slowly toward the ocean, Huubster was swimming belly-up tossing an inflated blowie up in the air.

He repeatedly let it loose, only to capture and toss it again.

On a separate occasion, four days later, Ms Nicholson observed Huubster again tossing a blowie repeatedly in the surf just north of Lancelin.

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