Animals that use medicinal plants are old news, says Prof

Recently, an orangutan successfully treating a wound by applying chewed leaves sparked a global media event:

“It is the first study to scientifically demonstrate that an animal uses a plant with medicinal properties that apply to wounds, then applies it to the wounds and treats them consistently over a period of time,” said Michael Huffman, who researches self-medication in animals. the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Nagasaki University in Japan.

Vaidyanathan G. ‘Orangutan, heal yourself’: the first wild animal to use medicinal plants. Nature. 2024 May;629(8013):737. doi: 10.1038/d41586-024-01289-w. PMID: 38698232.

Stanford classic Adrienne Mayor weighs in and begs to differ:

The behavior of the orangutan seemed familiar to me. As a historian of ancient science who studies what Greeks and Romans knew about plants and animals, I was reminded of similar cases reported by Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Aelian, and other ancient naturalists. A remarkable number of stories from ancient times to the Middle Ages describe self-medication by many different animals. The animals used plants to treat diseases, ward off parasites, neutralize toxins and heal wounds.

Adrienne Burgemeester, “People have been watching animals self-medicate with plants for thousands of years,” UPI, May 24, 2024

As she notes, thousands of years ago, writers reported many cases of animals seeking out plants to fix what ailed them. One of them we may have noticed ourselves: dogs occasionally eat grass, which can help them with digestion and deworming. (That goes for cats too.)

Dittany Cretan herb Dictamus isolated on white backround.  Origanum dictamnus Celtic oregano

She gives many examples, including:

Pliny explained how the use of dittany, also known as wild oregano, to treat arrow wounds arose from watching wounded deer graze on the herb. Aristotle and Dioscorides attributed the discovery to wild goats. Virgil, Cicero, Plutarch, Solinus, Celsus and Galen claimed that dittany has the ability to expel an arrowhead and close the wound. Among the many known phytochemical properties of dittany are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant effects.

Mayor: ‘For millennia’

A disturbing ambiguity

Mayor hastens to point out that “these pre-modern observations were, of course, folk knowledge, not formal science.” Troublingly, she also wants us to recognize that “a large number of medicinal plants used in modern medicine were first discovered by indigenous peoples and cultures of the past who observed animals that used and mimicked plants.”

What exactly the distinction between folk knowledge and formal science is – or should be – is unclear here. Were the older observations correct or not? If that’s not important, what is? For example, is formal scientific research that turns out to be wrong of greater intrinsic value than eternal observations that turn out to be right? If so, we need clarification as to why, not to mention a chance for open discussion.

And a question

Mayor notes: “Mysteries remain. No one knows how animals sense which plants cure diseases, heal wounds, repel parasites or promote health in some other way. Are they deliberately responding to certain health crises? And how is their knowledge transferred?”

Yes how is transferred their knowledge? We are told, “Even creatures with brains the size of a pinhead somehow know how to ingest certain plants or use them in unusual ways when they need them.” (Joel Shurkin, PNAS 2014) So it is not a matter of high intelligence. Genetics? Again: how exactly? Learning by imitation? That could also be studied.

We don’t actually know much more than the ancients about self-medication in animals – technically speaking zoopharmacognosy – a term coined in 1987. It will be interesting to see if our current assumptions about animals (genetics plus environment explain everything) will shed light on this. Perhaps this is a case of ecological design in nature.

You may also like to read: The remarkable medicines that wild animals find in nature. The “animal pharmacy” focuses mainly on the treatment of parasites and wounds using plants and insects. While intelligent animals like dolphins can sense cause and effect, we don’t know how butterflies and fruit flies choose the plants that can help.

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