The male Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin is the first known cetacean to die from asphyxiation by octopus, a new study says. He “seems to have been extremely greedy and thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to swallow it whole,'” says study leader Nahiid Stephens, a pathologist at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. When the young male, found on a beach about two hours south of Perth, was brought to Stephens’ lab for a post-mortem in August 2015, bits of a Maori octopus were still hanging out of his mouth.
Other dolphins have been observed killing and eating octopi before, so Stephens conducted a post-mortem to figure out what went wrong—particularly because the animal, nicknamed Gilligan, was in amazing condition. First, she had to remove the octopus. “It really was a huge octopus, I just kept pulling and pulling and thought, ‘My god! It’s still coming,'” Stephens says, adding that it had a tentacle span of 4.2 feet.
Dolphins can disengage their epiglottis—a flap of tissue that connects the larynx to the blowhole—to open up their throats and swallow larger pieces of food.
Stephens says that the 4.6-pound cephalopod appeared to have grabbed onto Gilligan’s larynx with a tentacle, preventing it from reconnecting to the dolphin’s breathing apparatus and effectively suffocating him to death.