Animals Use Plants To Self-Medicate

Last week, in an event that was of no surprise to many people, a simple observation shook science’s understanding of animal intelligence.

Rakus, a male Sumatran Orangutan, was documented using plant medicine to treat a facial injury. This behaviour showed a high level of thought around self-medication, and gives us another good example of Animals using plant medicine as a treatment.

In a Rainforest in Indonesia, after a skirmish with a rival, Rakus turned to nature’s pharmacy to find relief for a wound to his face. He selected the leaves of the Akar Kuning vine, known scientifically as Fibraurea tinctoria. This particular plant is not typically eaten by Orangutans, but is well-known in traditional human medicine for its anti-bacterial and other medicinal qualities.

Rakus chewed the leaves to form a paste, which he applied to his wound. He then fashioned a poultice from the masticated plant material, and placed it over the lesion. This behaviour demonstrated Rakus’s intentional use of a plant–a clear instance of an Animal self-medicating to treat an injury. It’s a testament to the vine’s efficacy that Rakus’s wound healed cleanly and completely within just four days, without any sign of infection.

This observation provides a window into the self-healing behaviours of Orangutans and hints that our shared ancestors also knew about and utilized medicinal plants. This reinforces our knowledge of the intricate connections between all living beings and demonstrates how shared knowledge could span across species.

Read more about this story at Smithsonian Magazine.

Other Examples of Animals Self-Medicating

Animal self-medication, or zoopharmacognosy, is a widespread phenomenon that occurs across many species. Here are a few more examples:

• Elephants: Elephants have been observed consuming certain plants to induce labour, similar to how humans use medicinal herbs in childbirth.

• Many animals, including Apes and Elephants, practice geophagy, which involves eating soil or clay to obtain essential minerals and detoxify their systems.

• Birds: House Sparrows and Finches have been seen incorporating cigarette butts into their nests, as the nicotine acts as a deterrent to mites.

• Gorillas: These primates consume clay, which can neutralize harmful substances and aid in digestion.

• Reindeer: In search of altered states, Reindeer have been known to consume hallucinogenic mushrooms.

• Chimpanzees: They chew leaves of the Aspilia plant to release toxins that kill parasitic gut worms

• Birds (over 200 species): Birds engage in anting, provoking Ants to spray them with formic acid, which helps treat lice infestations.

• Wood Ants: Use conifer resin to line their nests, which has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties.

• Cats and Dogs: Often eat grass as an emetic to relieve stomach issues.

• Brown Bears: Create a paste from chewed oshá root to soothe and prevent insect bites.

These examples highlight the ability of Animals to seek out and utilize natural remedies, demonstrating their complex understanding of their environment and its resources.