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Chimpanzees seek medicinal plants when they're sick or injured 

Chimpanzees appear to use plants with medicinal properties to treat their ailments, according to a new study led by the University of Oxford

Do chimpanzees actively seek medicinal plants?

Many plants produce compounds that have medicinal effects on humans and animals. Wild chimpanzees consume various plant matter, including some that may treat or lessen symptoms of illness. 

However, it is challenging to determine whether chimpanzees actively seek out medicinal plants or consume them incidentally.

Focus of the study

The researchers combined behavioral observations of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) with pharmacological testing of the plants they eat. They monitored the behavior and health of 51 chimpanzees from two communities in Uganda’s Budongo Central Forest Reserve. 

They collected plant extracts from 13 species of trees and herbs suspected of being used for self-medication and tested them for anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties. 

These plants included those observed being eaten by sick or injured chimpanzees, even if they were not part of the usual diet, and plants previously suggested to have medicinal properties.

Chimpanzees know which plants treat wounds

The study found that 88% of the plant extracts inhibited bacterial growth, while 33% had anti-inflammatory properties. Dead wood from Alstonia boonei showed strong antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity, suggesting it could be used to treat wounds

Bark and resin from Khaya anthotheca and leaves from Christella parasitica exhibited potent anti-inflammatory effects. 

The researchers observed a male chimpanzee with an injured hand seeking out and eating leaves of the fern, which may have helped reduce pain and swelling. They also recorded an individual with a parasitic infection consuming bark of the cat-thorn tree, Scutia myrtina.

These findings suggest that chimpanzees intentionally seek out specific plants for their medicinal effects. This study is one of the first to provide both behavioral and pharmacological evidence of the medicinal benefits to wild chimpanzees of feeding on bark and dead wood. 

Natural resources for medicinal purposes 

“In this paper, we demonstrate how watching and learning from our primate cousins may fast-track the discovery of novel medicines, while also emphasizing the importance of protecting our forest pharmacies,” the authors wrote.

Overall, the study highlights the importance of integrating behavioral observations with pharmacological testing to understand better how chimpanzees and potentially other animals use natural resources for medicinal purposes. 

This approach can lead to significant discoveries in medicine and conservation efforts, ensuring that these natural habitats and their valuable resources are protected for future generations.

Selective behavior towards plants

Beyond chimpanzees, many animals instinctively seek out specific plants for various purposes, such as nutrition or even protection. 

Nutritional value 

Herbivores like deer, rabbits, and certain bird species choose plants that provide the best nutritional value, such as those rich in essential vitamins and minerals. 

These animals are often very selective, preferring young, tender leaves and shoots that are easier to digest and more nutritious.

Nest building

Some animals use plants for purposes other than food. Birds like the European starling incorporate aromatic herbs into their nests. 

The volatile compounds from these plants can deter parasites, providing a cleaner and safer environment for their eggs and chicks.

Monarch butterflies

Insects also exhibit selective behavior towards plants. Monarch butterflies, for example, lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. 

The larvae (caterpillars) feed on these plants, which contain toxins that make the caterpillars and the adult butterflies unpalatable to predators.

Digestive purposes 

Carnivorous mammals, such as domestic cats and dogs, are known to eat grass occasionally. This behavior is believed to help induce vomiting to clear their digestive systems of indigestible materials or to aid in digestion.

Instinctual knowledge 

Animals seek out specific plants for a variety of reasons, including nutritional needs, medicinal benefits, protective measures, and reproductive purposes. 

This behavior showcases the intricate relationship between fauna and flora and highlights the instinctual knowledge animals possess about their natural environment.


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