Party animals: wildlife that get drunk or high

By

30 June 2017

Vervet monkey holding on to a tap

Credit: Mar del Sur/Wikimedia

Counting down until you can enjoy a post-work drink? You’re not alone. Humans have been using psychoactive substances since the earliest human records. But are we humans alone in our love of mind-altering substances? Of course not! There are plenty of party animals in the animal kingdom, here are just a few.

1. Elephant problem

“Will you write about the elephants that get drunk on marula fruit?” This sentence, uttered so frequently by well-meaning friends during the drafting of this blog, is the reason why we’re starting with an animal that doesn’t get drunk in the wild. Like lemmings jumping off a cliff, the imagery of drunk elephants was too good for the pesky ol’ truth to get in the way. But fiction it is – in 2006, biologists from the University of Bristol published a paper showing how impossible it would be. “Assuming all other model factors are in favour of inebriation, the intoxication would minimally require that the elephant…consumes a diet of only marula fruit at a rate of at least 400 per cent normal maximum food intake…” Sorry to bust that myth on you, but don’t worry there’s plenty of other drunk animals we can talk about instead.

2. Puff the magic puffer fish

A dolphin with its eyes half-closed

A very ~chill~ dolphin Credit: BBC

Dolphins have complex social structures, incredible long term memory and even regional accents. We can probably also add ‘recreational drug use’ to their list of human-like behaviours. In a 2014 BBC documentary, a group of adolescent bottlenose dolphins near southeast Africa were filmed pursuing, catching and gently chewing on a puffer fish, ingesting a non-lethal dose of its neurotoxin. After passing the puff around, the fish escaped from the dolphins who were too busy floating upside down and gazing at their reflection to notice.

3. Crop circles? Poppy cock!

When circles began appearing in the poppy fields of Tasmania, conspiracies began to circulate. Are we really alone?! Are these circles a communication code for aliens? For a while the real culprits got away with it. It’s easy to understand why, they’re so dang innocent-looking! The circles were being made by none other than the humble wallaby! Wallabies are quiet, sweet little fur-balls but when they break into a poppy field – and as the supplier of about half the world’s legally grown opium, Tasmania has quite a few of them – they turn into something else. Chowing down on the delicious poppies, for some ~unknown reason~ the wallabies hop around and around circles until the effects of the opium wears off.

4. Jaguars jump for joy

Credit: Ltshears/Wikimedia

While some animals accidentally stumble across their narcotic fix, jaguars in the Amazon will hunt for their high. Like a cat with catnip, jaguars go gaga for the bark of the Yage vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). After they have a chew, the big cat’s eyes widen and they are way chill; rolling about and rubbing up against trees like playful kittens. Local tribes also enjoy a hit of the vine mixed in a special brew called ‘jaguar eyes’. Legend has it long ago shamans saw a jaguar chewing on the vine and its subsequent state of ecstasy and they thought, ‘damn, I want some of that.’

5. Monkey see monkey do

Ok this one’s on us humans – a population of vervet monkeys have developed a bit of an alcohol problem after they were brought to the Caribbean island of St Kitts 300 years ago. They used to get drunk from consuming fermented sugar cane but these days they prefer stealing tourists’ cocktails. What’s interesting about this community of monkeys is the uncanny parallel between their drinking habits and ours. Most of the monkeys are social drinkers (only drink occasionally with friends, never before lunch) but five per cent have a problem with binge drinking (mostly young males… go figure) and fifteen per cent refuse to touch the stuff. Another fifteen per cent drank regularly but preferred their alcohol ‘neat’ (none of those sugary fruit juice cocktails, thanks). Interestingly, these monkeys were also good leaders with exceptional social skills. If you ever needed an excuse to buy that 25 year old Laphroaig, surely we’ve just provided it.

6. Reindeer flying high

Reindeer in Eastern Europe go to great lengths to find the hallucinogenic ‘fly agaric mushroom’ (Amanita muscaria), often fighting fiercely to get their hoofs on the stuff. According to Andrew Haynes from The Pharmaceutical Journal, after ingesting the magic mushroom the reindeer “behave in a drunken fashion, running about aimlessly and making strange noises.” The bright red and white mushroom has long been a favourite hallucinogen for people too, despite being poisonous. Long ago, Siberian reindeer herders discovered that the psychoactive constituents of the mushroom remains in the reindeer’s urine but the toxic components are metabolised making the urine ‘safe’ to drink. Hallucinations while on the drug often involve flying, and there’s a theory this is where Santa’s flying reindeer came from!

7. Honourable mention

A Jamaican fruit bat, Artibeus jamaicensis

The Jamaican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis) doesn’t have an issue holding its liquor. Credit: Alex Borisenko, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario

We started this list with an animal that doesn’t get drunk but everyone thinks it does, so why not finish it with an animal that does get drunk, but no one would ever know it. Enter: the humble bat. In the wild, many bats survive on eating fermented fruit and nectar, so they’re getting hammered, right? Well, a 2009 study found that ‘new world’ bats can get blind drunk (see what we did there??) but still fly straight as an arrow.

Love learning about the weird and whacky world of animals? So do we! Find out more about our research.