“Just a puff” – Do dolphins and other animals get high?

Marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. Humans often use these drugs to experience the famous ‘high.’ But did you know that we aren’t the only ones to go in search of this pleasurable experience? Dolphins, one of the most intelligent creatures on this earth, have been spotted by zoologist Rob Pilley, playing with pufferfish for what researchers believe is to get high.
Now, a bite of pufferfish toxin, even in small amounts, is harmful enough to kill a human in seconds. However, a pod of almost thirty dolphins was seen passing around the poor fish like a ball, clearly playing with it and then appearing in a trance-like state. However, do animals like dolphins truly experience a high, as we humans know it?

Dolphins playing with a pufferfish, Image from Ramil dolphin from Shutterstock

What does it mean to get high?
Our brains have several systems that regulate our moods. One of these makes a chemical called a neuromodulator. This chemical is sent to many regions to regulate how active that region is. The most common neuromodulators are serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and acetylcholine. These chemicals are also involved in pain and its absence, hunger, sexual arousal and learning ability.
When someone is high, their neuromodulator system is activated by an external substance, which allows these drugs to mimic the neuromodulators in the body. The mimicking of internal molecules makes you feel good, thus giving you a high. For example, cocaine mimics dopamine, and morphine mimics noradrenaline.

So, is it different for dolphins?
Humans and dolphins are both mammals. While human brains are extremely more complex, dolphins and other animals have similar neurotransmitters. Therefore drugs may have affected them in the same way, explaining where the theory behind dolphins experiencing a high originated from. However, scientists are extremely conflicted on whether dolphins actually do experience a ‘high.’

What does the pufferfish toxin actually do?
The pufferfish toxin is called tetrodotoxin and is classified as a sodium channel blocker. Sodium channels are a crucial element of most nerve cells. Most actions that require the fast transduction of nerve signals like pain, touch sensation, motor commands depend on sodium channels.’ However, most sodium channel blockers do not mimic any neurotransmitters but simply block the transmission of the signal. thus, at least in humans, it does not induce a thrilling effect nor cause a ‘high.’ Unfortunately, while researchers cannot ask the dolphins themselves how they feel, this likely means they do not feel the rush of euphoria either but rather just a numbing effect.

Do any other animals get high?
As disappointing as dolphins not actually experiencing a high is, it is widely believed that there are many common drunks in the wild. For example, the wallabies in Tasmania use the opium poppy. The opium poppy for humans is used in painkillers but for wallabies is their equivalent of weed. In 2009 they were seen to be hopping around and falling over, experiencing an apparent high. Another study by biologists from the University of Bristol in 2004 found that African elephants may get intoxicated by the fermenting fruit of the Marula tree.

Image from Wolfgang Krzemien from Pexels

Whether these animals actually feel high or intoxicated is something we will never truly get to know. However, it is comforting to know that it isn’t just humans who might not be the beings to suffer substance abuse problems.


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