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Orangutans Use Herbal Medicine Too!

Non-human animals have been known to use herbs to medicate for a long time, but it is very difficult to document. Now a clever orangutan has valuably contributed to the documentation.

Zoopharmacognosy is the name for the study of self-medication behavior in non-human animals. For a very long time, humans have been aware that animals use specific plants to treat specific illnesses. “Humans and non-human animals have been observing and interacting with each other since prehistoric times and learning about nature together.” In some cases, non-human animals “even seem to use plants or other natural items as drugs in a very similar way to ourselves in order to treat the very same symptoms that we do” (International Journal Of Applied Research and Studies. April 2019;5(5):73-79). It is even possible that humans gained some of their herbal knowledge by observing and learning from non-human animals.

It’s tough to document non-human animals treating themselves herbally because it is tough to predict when it is going to happen to observe it. But several animals are known to self-medicate, including everything from birds and bees to lizards, bears, deer, elephants and chimpanzees. Some lizards are believed to treat venomous snake bites by eating a particular root. Pregnant elephants eat particular leaves to induce delivery (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014 Dec 9;111(49):17339–17341).

Most evidence of non-human animal herbalism comes from the great apes. There is a lot of evidence that great apes, orangutans, gibbons and other species of monkeys eat whole leaves, chew bitter pith and engage in fur rubbing with plants medicinally.

Up to now, though, there has only been one report of a non-human animal using herbal medicine to treat a wound: that was a chimpanzee.

But now, scientists have observed an orangutan in Sumatra, whose name is Rakus, deliberately and patiently treating a wound with a herbal treatment. Three days after sustaining a bad facial wound, he carefully selected and tore off leaves of a vine known as Akar Kuning (Fibraurea tinctoria). He then pulverized them by chewing and repeatedly applied the juice to his wound several times over a period of 7 minutes. He then smeared the entire wound with the chewed leaf pulp to fully cover the wound. Rakus did not apply the herb to any other part of his body. He then fed on the plant for 34 minutes (he had also eaten the leaves and stems prior to the herbal treatment). The next day, but not again after, he ate the leaves of the plant for 2 minutes.

Remarkably, the wound did not develop any signs of infection, and 5 days later, the wound appeared to fully healed, leaving only a faint scar.

The herb the orangutan selected has painkilling, antifever and diuretic effects. It contains alkaloids and other compounds that have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant, antihemorrhagic and other activities that are important for wound healing.

The researchers intriguingly conclude that “This possibly innovative behavior presents the first systematically documented case of active wound treatment with a plant species know to contain biologically active substances by a wild animal and provides new insights into the origins of human wound care.”

Sci Rep 14, 8932 (2024).

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