Orangutans Use Plant Extracts to Treat Pain
Medicine is not exclusively a human invention. Many other animals, from insects to birds to nonhuman primates, have been known to self-medicate with plants and minerals for infections and other conditions. Behavioral ecologist Helen Morrogh-Bernard of the Borneo Nature Foundation has spent decades studying the island’s orangutans and says she has now found evidence they use plants in a previously unseen medicinal way.
During more than 20,000 hours of formal observation, Morrogh-Bernard and her colleagues watched 10 orangutans occasionally chew a particular plant (which is not part of their diet) into a foamy lather and then rub it into their fur. The apes spent up to 45 minutes at a time massaging the concoction onto their upper arms or legs. The researchers believe this behavior is the first known example of a nonhuman animal using a topical analgesic.
Local people use the same plant—Dracaena cantleyi, an unremarkable-looking shrub with stalked leaves—to treat aches and pains. Morrogh-Bernard’s co-authors at the Czech Academy of Sciences, Palacky University Olomouc and the Medical University of Vienna studied its chemistry. They added extracts from it to human cells that had been grown in a dish and had been artificially stimulated to produce cytokines, an immune system response that causes inflammation and discomfort. The plant extract reduced the production of several types of cytokines, the scientists reported in a study published last November in Scientific Reports.
The results suggest that orangutans use the plant to reduce inflammation and treat pain, says Jacobus de Roode, a biologist at Emory University, who was not involved in the study. Such findings could help identify plants and chemicals that might be useful for human medications, de Roode says.
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