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Animals and their plants

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Lately, my thoughts have turned to drugs. I've had few opportunities in my life to experience first hand how incredibly effective pharmaceuticals are, but my recent oral surgery left me wildly impressed with them. The chemicals that humans have harnessed from nature to promote health and to ease pain as well as other symptoms of injury and disease are astounding.

People are not the only species on the planet using nature's pharmacy to achieve better living through chemistry. Observations of the plants that non-human animals utilize reveal a tendency of many species to make use of herbal medicines. The field of zoopharmacognosy concerns the uses of plants by animals to treat disease and the symptoms of it.

Medicinal plant use is best documented in primates. An entire new class of compounds, one of which has antibacterial, antiparasitic and antitumor properties, was discovered because a field biologist observed chimpanzees in Tanzania consuming a plant containing it. Chimps only ate from this particular plant when they were ill, and analysis of their feces showed that levels of a parasitic worm were much lower about 24 hours after consuming its leaves. People living not far from these chimps also know to soak these leaves in water and then drink the bitter-tasting concoction when they have stomach pain, diarrhea or other intestinal upset.

Woolly spider monkeys may be using plants in very specific ways to influence their reproduction. Two plants that they often eat are high in estrogen, so eating them may actually decrease fertility. In other words, they may be using these plants as a form of birth control. At other times, these monkeys have been observed eating monkey's ear, a plant which may increase a monkey's chance of becoming pregnant because it contains stigmasterol, a precursor to progesterone.

At the very end of pregnancy, elephants have been observed to walk more than five times their usual daily distance to find a tree in the Boraginaceae family. They then consume it in its entirety, perhaps to induce labor. Kenyan women seeking to induce labor use the leaves of this same tree to make a tea.

Many species engage in fur rubbing behavior in which parts of plants are applied directly to the fur or chewed and mixed with saliva and then ground into it. Though it occurs in bears, coatis and spider monkeys, it has been best studied in capuchin monkeys. Capuchin monkeys use different types of plants, with citrus being the most popular. The plants they use are all strong smelling and most contain compounds with antiseptic, fungicidal, insecticidal, anesthetic or anti-inflammatory properties. The plant most commonly used for fur rubbing by bears is called "bear medicine" and has long been used by people as an antibacterial agent and a topical anesthetic.

The study of people's traditional herbal medicines offers insights that lead to powerful pharmaceutical therapies. Studies of other animals and the ways they choose to medicate themselves may offer similar knowledge. It's exciting to contemplate how much humans have to learn about the use of medicinal plants from the many other species of animals that share the planet.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a certified applied animal behaviorist, certified pet dog trainer, author and an adjunct faculty in NAU's Department of Biological Sciences.


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