Pharmacy in the sea: Dolphins ‘use coral as medicine for skin ailments’

Pharmacy in the sea: Dolphins ‘use coral as medicine for skin ailments’

Who doesn’t like a bath scrub? Dolphins definitely do: they are known for being clever, playful, tactile animals, and they like to rub against rough surfaces, nap in coral beds and soak on sponges like guests at an underwater spa.

However, dolphins may be getting more from their bath scrubs than just relaxation and leisure. A study published today suggests that bottlenose dolphins may be self-medicating their skin ailments with the help of corals, adding to growing research on their previously unexplored medicinal properties.

“It’s very intensive,” said Angela Ziltener, one of the study’s lead authors, of the behaviour of the dolphins with particular corals. “They don’t just go through [the coral] – they go up, they come back down again and they rub their belly, their ventral area and the back.”

Dolphins have thick, smooth and resilient skin, but can be prone to skin conditions such as yeast and bacterial infections, scars or tattoo-like lesions caused by viral pox infections. These ailments seem to be exacerbated by global heating.

Ziltener, a wildlife biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and her team have been surveying a community of 360 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in the northern Red Sea since 2009. They observed that the dolphins often queued up nose-to-tail to rub themselves against corals as soon as they woke up and right before they went to sleep, as if they were showering for the day. As well as a mechanical rub, the dolphins also caused the corals to release a polyp mucus.

Lead Image: A bottlenose dolphin rubbing its belly on coral. The animals are prone to skin conditions, such as yeast, bacterial and viral pox infections, which seem to be exacerbated by climate change. Photograph: Cultura Creative RF/Alamy.

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