Humans clearly use drugs for pleasure, not just to remove withdrawal symptoms if you’re addicted. Alcohol is a solvent, dissolving anxieties and making it easier to socialize; marijuana has a variety of pleasant effects depending on the consumer (I tend to giggle and get a bad case of munchies); and psychedelic drugs truly can give you an idea about what your neurons are capable of producing.
What we don’t often realize is that, as a new piece at the Animal Cognition site emphasizes, drug use is not a rarity in the animal world. Now I’m not talking here about animals self-medicating by ingesting various natural remedies, such as primates’ use of plants to eliminate internal parasites and microbes. Rather, I’m talking about the use of drugs for fun. We all know about one such drug: catnip (Nepeta cataria), which some domestic cats (including my last one) love to sniff, lick, and eat. Yes, the active chemical (nepetalactone) is said to mimic cat pheromones, but it would be hard to deny that the cats—including big cats like tigers—really enjoy using the stuff.
But the site gives other examples (with references) of animals using drugs for fun. I’ll just list them, as you can read the piece for yourself, and put up two videos:
- Cows grazing on locoweed (it’s toxic but seems addictive)
- Bighorn sheep gnawing lichens off rocks; the lichens are said to affect the sheep’s behavior, and perhaps cause hallucinations
- Cervids eating psychedelic mushrooms, including fly agaric, which makes them intoxicated
- Wallabies eat opium! Wallabies are said to cause serious damage to legal opium-poppy fields in Australia. After the marsupials get high, they “run around in circles, then they crash”.
- Bees preferentially drinking ethanol over unfermented saps and nectars. Sadly, really drunken bees are killed by their nestmates, probably because their aberrant behavior suggests that they’re ill.
- Australian lorikeets get drunk on fermented nectars, as do many primates.
Now I’m not saying that all these animals take “drugs” because they enjoy the effects. They could be attracted to other things, like flavors, and the drunkenness could be a side effect of that. Or they could be seeking out botanical remedies that have intoxicating side effects. But at least in the case of catnip and the two examples below, it seems as if the animals really enjoy it! And why not? Who knows whether members of another species might, like our own, enjoy altering their consciousness.
Here’s one I didn’t know:
Dolphins have been observed on multiple occasions carrying puffer fish in their mouths, squeezing them, and passing them along to other dolphins. It is speculated that the dolphins are trying to get the puffer fish to release a small burst of neurotoxin, which puts them into a trance-like state.
This behavior was recorded in a BBC documentary produced by zoologist Robert Pilley, who commented “This was a case of young dolphins purposefully experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating. After chewing the puffer and gently passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection. The dolphins were specifically going for the puffers and deliberately handling them with care. Dolphins seem to be experts on how to prepare puffers and how to handle them.” Since the toxin released by the puffer fish is deadly in large doses, the dolphins would indeed need to handle the fish delicately in order to avoid lethal poisoning.
Have a look at this video, and you tell me. “Hey, Joe, don’t bogart that puffer!”
And we’ve all seen this BBC video of drunk monkeys. I suggest that they really like getting tipsy.
Some of the animals that indulge in ethanol become dependent on it, showing signs of addiction. When given the option, chimps will consume enough alcohol on a regular basis to experience withdrawals when access to the alcohol is removed. Fruit flies show a preference for solutions containing ethanol, and the higher the ethanol level, the better. Because of this and the fact that they will return to “binge drinking” even after long periods of being denied alcohol, fruit flies are considered a suitable animal model for studying alcoholism. It’s interesting to note the relation that alcohol consumption has on fruit fly sexuality, and vice versa. Fruit flies that are sexually deprived tend to drink more alcohol, and when they are continuously drunk, male flies will display homosexual behaviors.
h/t: Nicole Reggia