Dolphins use corals reefs to self-medicate

A study reveals that certain corals and sponges may have medicinal properties which bottlenose dolphins use to treat skin problems.

Angela Ziltener is a wildlife biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland together with her team have analyzed coral samples to learn why dolphins rub their bodies on certain types of coral in reefs. Ziltener first observed dolphins doing this over 13 years ago in the Northern Red Sea near Egypt. As a diver, she was able to visit a pod of dolphins regularly after gaining their trust in order to study their behavior.

The researchers found that the dolphins were agitating small polyps that make up the coral communities, which release mucus. The analysis of the coral revealed 17 active metabolites with antibacterial, antioxidative, hormonal, and toxic activities.  The team believes that the mucus from the corals and sponges regulates the microbiome on the dolphin's skin, and treats infections.

After years of observation, they discovered that the reefs where these corals are found are local dolphin population “hang-outs” where they head for rest and relaxation. 

Ziltener started a non-profit conservation group called Dolphin Watch Alliance focused on research, awareness, and conservation of wild dolphins and to educate the public on making sure that tourist experiences around the area are safe for dolphins. The group also lobbies for the coral reefs to become protected, which is not only essential for the dolphins and ocean biodiversity but also means that researchers can continue to study this coral rubbing behavior.


Author: Sylvia Jacobs

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