New study finds coral reefs act as a 'pharmacy' for dolphins

Coral contains healing properties that can treat skin conditions, researchers found.

When Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins develop a skin condition like a rash, they rub themselves against corals, treating it like a "medicine cabinet," according to a new study appearing in the journal iScience.

Thirteen years ago, wildlife biologist Angela Ziltener, the study's co-author, noticed dolphins frequent corals, but they are selective about which ones they rub against.

“I hadn’t seen this coral rubbing behavior described before, and it was clear that the dolphins knew exactly which coral they wanted to use,” Ziltener said in a statement.

“I thought, ‘There must be a reason.’”

Lab analysis of the coral suggests when the dolphins rub up against certain species, they agitate polyps in the coral, causing it to release mucus that contains multiple healing qualities.

“Repeated rubbing allows the active metabolites to come into contact with the skin of the dolphins,” lead author and analytical chemist Gertrud Morlock, [said]((

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“These metabolites could help them achieve skin homeostasis and be useful for prophylaxis or auxiliary treatment against microbial infections.”

But the coral reefs are more than just a pharmacy to the dolphins: they also use the area to rest and play. Ziltner described them as their "bedrooms" and "playgrounds."

But human activity could be upsetting this delicate balance.

“The tourism industry makes a lot of money now out of dolphin swimming," Ziltner said.

"People are dreaming of swimming with the dolphins, so they are figuring out which reefs they use and disturbing the dolphins if they don’t follow the guidelines for how to approach them in a responsible way.”

This concern inspired Ziltner to establish Dolphin Watch Alliance, an outreach organization that works with tour guides and the public to ensure excursions remain respectful of dolphins and their habitat.

Thumbnail image courtesy: Claudia14/Pixabay.