Dolphins use coral reefs to treat skin diseases, the study suggests

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Some dolphins treat skin diseases by rubbing against corals, according to a recent report in the diary iScience.

The researchers said in the report that corals have medicinal properties and suggested that the dolphins use marine invertebrates to treat skin conditions.

Dolphins have been observed rubbing against specific corals.

Dolphins have been observed rubbing against specific corals.

Lead co-author Angela Ziltener, who is also a wildlife biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said in a press release that she has noticed dolphins in the northern Red Sea off the coast of Egypt they were selective about which corals they rubbed.

“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 the release and added, “I thought, ‘There must be a reason.’

Spinner dolphins swim in a pod.
(Sylvain CORDIER / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

MORE THAN 90% OF THE GREAT REEF CORAL STUDIED THIS YEAR WAS WHITENED

Having earned the trust of the group of dolphins, Ziltener and her the team identified and took samples of the corals the dolphins chose to rub against. The researchers said that when Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins repeatedly rubbed against the coral, the tiny polyps that make up the coral released mucus. The team collected and analyzed mucus samples.

Lead author Gertrud Morlock, analytical chemist and food scientist at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany, examined samples of the gorgonian coral Rumphella aggregata, the leather coral Sarcophyton sp. and the sponge Ircinia sp. The researchers said in the release that they found 17 active metabolites with antibacterial, antioxidant, hormonal and toxic activities. The study authors suggested that mucus played a role in regulating the dolphin’s skin microbiome and treating infections.

“Repeated rubbing allows the active metabolites to come into contact with the dolphin skin,” Morlock said in the statement. “These metabolites could help them achieve skin homeostasis and be useful for prophylaxis or adjunct treatment against microbial infections.”

New research says dolphins "speak" to each other like humans. This photo shows Tapeko, a 31-year-old bottlenose dolphin, and her 8-week-old calf at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois.

New research says dolphins “talk” to each other like humans. This photo shows Tapeko, a 31-year-old bottlenose dolphin, and her 8-week-old calf at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois.
(AP Photo / Chicago Zoological Society, Jim Schulz)

Zilterer added that the coral reefs served as bedrooms and playgrounds for the dolphins and after a nap, dolphins typically performed the rubbing behavior of corals. “It’s almost like they’re showering, cleaning themselves up before bed or getting up for the day,” Zieltener said in the statement.

The benefits of coral for human health are being studied. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, said on its website, “Many drugs are being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses and other diseases.”

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While the Ziltener group suggests it coral can have a medicinal effect on dolphin skin, some studies have described an adverse condition called coral dermatitis that can occur in humans when they touch coral. One the study said the corals “are known to produce a toxic substance which when in contact with human skin can cause hypersensitivity reactions.”

This photo provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) shows diseased corals in a coral reef in Cairns / Cooktown on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

This photo provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) shows diseased corals in a coral reef in Cairns / Cooktown on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
((N. Mattocks / GBRMPA via AP))

Some marine biologists and animal experts have told FOX News that the study is interesting, however, more research is needed in this area. They also noted that they fear that a study like this would attract more people to the reefs, ending the reef’s existence.

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Scientists said in the study that coral reefs are severely threatened by damage from tourists, water pollution, disease and habitat destruction.