In January 2017, researchers from the Mandurah Dolphin Research Project posted images on Facebook of a jubilant-looking dolphin calf playing with a pufferfish. The wild dolphin, nicknamed Huubster, is clearly enjoying himself as he gnaws on the hapless fish in the warm waters off the coast of Dawesville, Australia. According to the researchers who witnessed his behaviour, Huubster "seems to have taken a special interest in tossing and chewing blowfish lately".
So is this just normal dolphin play behaviour, or is something else going on?
Soon after the photos were posted, journalists began wondering if this was an example of dolphins getting high off the toxins excreted by the pufferfish (also called blowfish or blowies). The idea is not new: it was first floated in 2014 in a BBC documentary called "Dolphins - Spy in the Pod", which includes footage of a group of dolphins lazily chewing on a pufferfish and looking, at first glance, to be in a daze. According to the producer of the series, the animals "are purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating" and entering a "trance-like state".
However, there have been no scientific studies to investigate that possibility, so it was left to journalists and dolphin experts to give their opinion. And scientific consensus appears to throw cold water on the idea. Instead, it's much more likely that when we do see dolphins like Huubster toss around a pufferfish, it's an example of run-of-the-mill play behaviour.
The Earth Touch camera crews have filmed similar pufferfish-dribbling performances:
Meanwhile, the researcher who snapped the latest photographs, Krista Nicholson of Murdoch University in Perth, has written about Huubster's antics for the Mandurah Mail. She points out that "many do not agree" that dolphins could get high from pufferfish, and that it's likely that "small amounts of tetrodotoxin only make the animal feel numb, not high".
"Dolphins not only interact with blowies but have also been known to play with other creatures, like crabs … and objects like seagrass, so it's possible their treatment of blowies is part of the same behaviour," she adds.
Despite the lack of data to support the puff-puff-pass scenario, it's not inconceivable to think that dolphins could appreciate the experience. There are plenty of examples of wild animals enjoying the intoxicating effects of various substances – from wallabies that get "stoned" from eating opium poppies to vervet monkeys that steal and drink beachside cocktails. In fact, studies show that monkeys prefer an alcoholic beverage to one without alcohol, suggesting they enjoy the feeling of being drunk.
This new wave of media interest in dolphins "huffing" pufferfish is unlikely to solve the tetrodotoxin mystery, and although many scientists are doubtful that the animals are puffing for pleasure, the jury is out for now. Either way, the snapshots of Huubster are undeniably adorable. "Regardless whether this behaviour is play or serves a purpose of getting high, it certainly made for some fun pictures," says Nicholson.
Top header image: Nancy Magnusson, Flickr