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Animals Use Medicine, Too

From chimps to caterpillars to birds and flies, all sorts of animals use medicine

photo: QuickMeme

The natural world has long been the inspiration for (and, until recently, the sole source of) medical cures. A vast range of medicinal compounds—from the pain killers codeine and morphine to acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) to the anti-malarial quinine—derive from plants. And, according to a review study published the other day, humans are not the only animals that have managed to figure this out.

According to NPR, the list of animals that turn to the medicinal properties of wild things is surprisingly long.

“First on the list: primates, who are particularly good at exploiting the medicinal properties of plants. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have all figured out that swallowing rough leaves can purge their intestines of parasites. And chimps plagued by roundworm infections have been known to eat plants with anti-parasitic properties, despite their bitter flavor and lack of nutritional value.”

Some animals, says NPR, seem to do it on purpose: they get sick, they swallow their medicine.

“Primates “are not so different from us,” de Roode tells Shots. “They can learn from each other and they can make associations between … taking medicinal plants and feeling better.”

“Previously,” says Douglas Main for LiveScience, “scientists thought such behavior was unique to primates and more intelligent animals, where self-medication could be learned and passed on from parents to offspring.”

But according to the study scientists, who examined recent research in the field, animals from insects to chimpanzees may self-medicate as an innate response to parasites and perhaps for other reasons as well.

“Self-medication in animals is really common, more common than previously thought,” said study author Jaap de Roode.

Unlike the chimps and other primates, says NPR, some animal’s self-medicating may be a bit less deliberate. But, that doesn’t stop it being effective.

Take the woolly bear caterpillar, for example, which ingests plants that are toxic to parasites. Or the wood ant, which incorporates antimicrobial resin into its nests. And don’t overlook the crafty fruit fly, which lays its eggs in alcohol from fermented fruit to protect its little ones from parasitic wasps.

The realisation, says the Los Angeles Times, could even lead to benefits for human medicine.

Just as animals end up benefiting from medical technology developed for humans, why couldn’t humans find new relief for illness from things animals have intuitively discovered in nature?

More from Smithsonian.com:

Birds Harness the Deadly Power of Nicotine to Kill Parasites

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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