Dolphin Spa

by | Nov 15, 2022 | Invertebrates, Too Cute | 0 comments

Rubbing behavior on gorgonian coral Rumphella aggregata. (Image:


While humans go to spas for skin treatments and the pharmacy for medical ointments to cure skin issues, it seems that dolphins look to nature. Researchers found dolphins rubbing themselves against corals and sea sponges in the Red Sea and this led them to ask the question: why?

Scratch that itch

Many marine mammals, such as orcas and beluga whales, rub their bodies against sand, pebbles or limestone, but this kind of behavior is not as well studied in dolphins. For orcas and belugas, researchers feel that the rubbing is perhaps a type of exfoliation in summer to get rid of the outer layers of skin. Angela Ziltener from the University of Zurich in Switzerland noticed something strange with regards to the dolphins. First, they rubbed against living organisms (specific corals and sponges) and second, when they rubbed on some of the corals, a mucous would be released.  This led her to believe that the animals might be self-medicating.

Wait your turn

“They always come back to the same organism and they are really rubbing different body parts on them,” says Ziltener. “It’s not observed in sand or in seagrass, for example; it’s a different behavior. [They’re] queueing up and waiting for their turn.”

An interesting find

The researchers analyzed coral (gorgonians and leather coral) and sponge (Ircinia sp.) samples and found 17 bioactive compounds with antibacterial, antioxidant, or hormone-like properties.  Jason Bruck from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas says though, that “we cannot assume the medicinal effects of the corals would be the same for dolphins as they would be for us.” This definitely needs more research, nothing can be assumed, especially seeing as dolphins have a unique dermal anatomy and physiology.

Check out this link for more:

  • Heidi dM

    Heidi is a Marine Biologist who has been working in the public aquarium industry as an aquarist and now as a consultant specialising in husbandry, interpretation and staff training. She has also written a series of children's books about the aquarium and fish world called "Abby's Aquarium Adventures".


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