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Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin © Barbara Saberton
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Dolphins use coral to cure skin conditions

A new scientific report published this week suggests that dolphins may be using corals and sponges for medicinal purposes to help cure skin conditions.

Researchers have been studying a population of 360 wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins living in the Red Sea since 2009. Over that time they have noticed that the dolphins spend a lot of time rubbing specific parts of their bodies, such as their body and backs, against particular types of coral and sponges and have previously theorised that there may be medicinal benefits from these activities.

The dolphins visit the corals as particular times of the day and will queue up to take turns. Amongst the corals visited are the gorgonian coral Rumphella aggregata, the leather coral Sarcophyton sp. and the sponge Ircinia sp. 

The scientists have tested the corals and found they contain compounds that could be helpful in treating skin conditions. The skin of dolphins can suffer from infections, sometimes resulting in lesions.

The next challenge is to try and work out in what way each of the coral's can benefit the dolphins and whether their overall health improves.

Using objects from their environment for beneficial purposes is not unusual in whale and dolphin behaviour. Elsewhere in the world, bowhead whales have been observed rubbing themselves against rocks, perhaps in an effort to remove dead skin. Some Northern Resident orcas in Canada famously use specific beaches to rub themselves on the stony bottom, possibly to reinforce their strong family bonds.

Read the full report published in iScience:
Evidence that Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins self-medicate with invertebrates in coral reefs
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2022.104271

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