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Butterfly's dream

A butterfly perches on a flower at the Arboretum.

The quest to experience altered states of consciousness is hardly unique to humans. Intoxication caused by overindulging on fermenting fruit occurs in bees, birds, butterflies, monkeys, deer, moose and squirrels, among others. Many animals even consume substances with psychotropic and narcotic effects.

Jaguars eat a vine that apparently causes them to hallucinate. Native South American people also ingest this vine, which is used for both healing and spiritual purposes in a number of cultures.

Reindeer seek out a red mushroom with white spots that contains hallucinogenic chemicals, and they will dig through snow for this treat. Shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions also consume it, causing a heightening of their senses and visions of flying. Some researchers believe that the legend of flying reindeer originates with these mushroom-induced hallucinations. It gives new insight into Santa going on a trip with his reindeer, doesn’t it?

Bighorn sheep can experience a Rocky Mountain high that is distinctly different than the effect of altitude in the Canadian Rockies. These animals take great risks on excessively steep terrain to reach dangerously narrow ledges and unstable outcrops just to procure a rare lichen with narcotic properties. They scrape the lichen off the rocks with their teeth, sometimes even damaging them in the process, suggesting that the mind-altering benefits are truly intoxicating.

Dolphins have been observed passing a pufferfish between members of the group and chewing on it. After consuming a bit of the fish and the neurotoxin it produces, the dolphins appear relaxed to the point of being dazed. Some of them spent a lot of time gazing at the surface of the water, perhaps mesmerized by their own reflections. Like recreational drug use in our own species, the risks are enormous. A small dose of the neurotoxin gives the dolphins a great deal of pleasure, but there’s a fine line between a dose that leads to an enjoyable experience and one that is lethal.

The search for black truffles by pigs is well known, but it is hardly common knowledge that these mushrooms contain anandamide. The word anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word “ananda” which means “bliss”. Anandamide is a cannabinoid that is similar in structure to THC—the psychoactive compound in marijuana that causes the high. Biologists believe that anandamide attracts animals that eat truffles and that their cannabinoid receptors may have evolved in response to the presence of these chemicals in food sources.

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Wallabies regularly get high and create a problem on the Australian island of Tasmania, which is the world’s leading producer of the legal opium used to manufacture morphine and other opiates. Wallabies look like small versions of the kangaroos to which they are closely related and they share the jumping ability so characteristic of the group. After dining on the opium in the poppy fields, wallabies damage the crop as they hop around in circles.

The use of chemicals for recreational purposes is widespread, with humans being just one of many species that will partake in order to affect their minds.

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Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and an Adjunct Faculty in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

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