Bottlenose Dolphin Skincare
Captain Cathy Eagle
Indo Pacific bottlenose dolphins practice a very thorough skin routine which involves a lot of coral mucus. The dolphins rub their bodies against certain types of corals and sponges that are believed to have medicinal benefits. The three invertebrates that the dolphins seem to be drawn to are toadstool leather coral, gorgonian coral, and sea sponge.
Seventeen bioactive compounds produced by these corals and sponges have been identified by scientists. These compounds include antibacterial substances and antioxidants as well as hormone-like compounds that might help maintain skin hydration and elasticity. Some of the corals produce small amounts of toxic compounds that may help to kill parasites that live on the skin’s surface.
Sometimes the dolphins take the corals into their mouths and shake their heads to make a brightly colored substance fly out. It forms a cloud around the dolphin and then the dolphin swims through the cloud like someone using a perfume spritz. By regularly coating their silver-gray bodies with these compounds the dolphins may prevent and treat skin infections as well as generally maintaining their skin microbiomes or the community of microorganisms that live on their flesh.
Dolphins even line up and take turns with this skincare behavior. Entire groups of dolphins locate the coral or sponge and then line up and patiently wait their turn to swim over it. As the dolphins pushed or brushed against them, some corals would secrete mucus that would stick to their skin. Dolphins apparently teach this behavior to their young. Interestingly, scientists observed dolphins performing these skincare rituals after waking from a nap.
There are three main areas of coral reefs in Florida. They are the Florida Keys, the southeastern coast from northern Monroe County to Palm Beach County, and the Florida Middle Grounds in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, south of Apalachicola and northwest of Tarpon Springs. Southwest Florida is not known for coral reefs but dolphins find other ways to exfoliate their skin such as riding in the wakes of boats, brushing up along the sandy seafloor, and rubbing up against seawalls.
Capt. Cathy Eagle