How Other Primates Self-Medicate - and What They Could Teach Us
How Other Primates Self-Medicate - and What They Could Teach Us
Chimpanzees self medicate by eating rough leaves to get rid of parasites. Nigel Swales/wikimedia, CC BY-SA
By Sophia Daoudi / theconversation.com
Jun 2, 2016

Despite our advances in technology and medicine, we seem to be fighting a never-ending battle against a number of diseases and ailments. As viruses become more complex and bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, it seems that the lab-made drugs we have become so dependent on may no longer provide the cures we need. Perhaps this is why we are now turning to nature in the hope that there may be a remedy tucked away somewhere in a remote tropical rain forest.

It could be that our closest living relatives, non-human primates, hold some of the answers we seek. Many species including chimpanzees make use of the natural resources in their habitats to self-medicate and improve their own health. This behaviour, known as zoopharmacognosy, typically involves ingestion or topical application of plants, soils, insects or even psychoactive drugs in order to treat and prevent diseases.

One of the most well known examples are domestic dogs and cats eating grass in order to induce vomiting if they have an upset stomach or internal parasite. However, most studies of animal self-medication are in non-human primates. One of the first documented cases was in 1983, when researchers observed chimpanzees in Tanzania folding and swallowing Aspilia spp leaves without chewing them. Other scientists noted the same behaviour in chimp colonies in Uganda and Nigeria. This is quite unusual, not only because there is no nutritional benefit in swallowing these leaves whole, but also because the leaves themselves have a rough and bristly surface. So what is the purpose of doing this?

Tamarin monkeys eat large seeds to get rid of parasites. Kevin Barrett/FlickrCC BY-SA

It was only as recently as 1996 that scientists suggested it was a form of self-medication, as research began to link it with faeces full of undigested leaves and expelled parasitic worms. It seemed the chimpanzees were swallowing the leaves to take advantage of their rough and bristly surface to hook onto the worms as they passed through their digestive system, purging their intestines of parasitic worms. The tamarin monkeys of South America, however, have found a different method to remove internal parasites. They are able to swallow large seeds of up to 1.5cm, which then pass through their digestive tract dislodging or expelling internal parasites.

Clay, charcoal and fur-rubbing

Another odd behaviour that is also thought of as a kind of self-medication is soil and clay consumption, which has been observed in a number of colobine monkeys. It was generally believed that soil is eaten as an additional source of minerals or to absorb and neutralise certain plant compounds, which might be toxic or interfere with digestion. Although there is no compelling evidence that soil consumption detoxifies chemicals, recent studies have found that some clays have antibacterial properties.

Charcoal consumption on the other hand is known to relieve indigestion and, more importantly, can be used as an antidote to detoxify poisons. This method of self-medication is still widely used among humans, but has only been reported in one species of primate, the Zanzibar red colobus monkey. The diet of these monkeys mainly consists of young leaves that are fairly toxic – and by ingesting charcoal they are able to neutralise the effects.

Anointing behaviour, or fur-rubbing, is where animals rub strong smelling substances into their fur. There are a few explanations for the function of this behaviour, including social signalling and sexual selection but it can also be a form of self-medication against skin parasites. Fur-rubbing has been recorded in a wide range of primate species. Black lemurs, for instance, use toxic millipedes to rub their fur whereas black-handed spider monkeys use aromatic leaves including those of celery, orangutans use Commelina herbs and owl monkeysplants and millipedes.

Can’t wait to find a good onion to rub on you. Adrian Soldati/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Tufted capuchin monkeys anoint with a surprisingly wide range of materials – including plants, aromatic leaves, onion, citrus fruits and invertebrates such as ants and millipedes. All of these items have some form of insect repelling properties. Monkeys typically apply them more frequently during the rainy season when there are more flying insects around.

The different forms of self-medicating by our cousins provide simple and natural solutions to combat parasites and other ailments. The research could also provide useful insights for the future of pharmacology. One of the founders of zoopharmacognosy, Eloy Rodriguez, a professor at Cornell University, has argued that some of the compounds animals use to kill parasitic worms may be useful against tumors.

Many plant species have been found to be rich in a substances which have antimicrobial properties. Despite this, a study suggests less than 5% of tropical forest plants have been screened for their medicinal properties. However, pharmaceutical firms and medical institutes have been screening rainforest plant species for anti-cancer and anti-HIV compounds with some success.

This research holds the promise of endless possibilities and by looking at the specific items used by primates and other organisms for self-medication we can then identify whether their chemical compositions would be suitable for curing or aiding the treatment of human diseases and illnesses.

3.8 ·
1
Trending Today
Obama's Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Stansfield Smith · 11,062 views today · It should be a scandal that leftists-liberals paint Trump as a special threat, a war mongerer – not Obama who is the first president to be at war everyday of his eight years...
Make The Serengeti Great Again | Resource Scarcity, Demagogues and How Creativity Can Trump Hate (2017)
5 min · 3,613 views today · A Familiar Tale of Resource Scarcity, Demagogues, and How Creativity Can Trump Hate A quick, original, illustrated allegory that pokes at the demagogues we’ve got with an...
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 2,743 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,023 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 1,689 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
What Is a Gift Economy? - Alex Gendler
4 min · 1,488 views today · What if, this holiday season, instead of saying "thank you" to your aunt for her gift of a knitted sweater, the polite response expected from you was to show up at her house in...
Why I Think This World Should End
4 min · 1,362 views today · Sorry if this offends you. - Prince Ea
Union Co-Operatives: What They Are and Why We Need Them
Simon Taylor · 1,179 views today · Neoliberal policies contribute to alienation, disempowerment and non-unionised jobs, but a new model for unions could break the vicious circle, argues Simon Taylor.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 910 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Prophecy Delivered! Martin Luther King Jr. and the Death of Democracy
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou · 813 views today · “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Democracy is dead. It...
The Myth of Romantic Love May Be Ruining Your Health
Susanne Vosmer · 716 views today · Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two yearning halves, who search for each other to find their complete, original state. Few find...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 712 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 651 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 373 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 365 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Bracing for Trump's Anti-Worker, Corporate Agenda
Colin Jenkins · 349 views today · Rich people don’t have to have a life-and-death relationship with the truth and its questions; they can ignore the truth and still thrive materially. I am not surprised many...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 344 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More
Josh Jones · 332 views today · Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have...
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 331 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 302 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
How Other Primates Self-Medicate - and What They Could Teach Us