Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis
Using plants for their medicinal properties has been a part of humanity’s story since prehistoric times and it is believed that we learned what plants had healing qualities based on trial and error application of those used by animals in the immediate environment. The field of zoopharmacognosy is the scientific study of how animals self-medicate and is also a growing field in veterinary medicine that allows captive and domesticated animals to choose treatment derived from a variety of natural sources that they would normally encounter in the wild. Biologist Michael Huffman has created four criteria to establish if an animal is engaging in this activity:
- The plant eaten is not part of the regular diet of the animal.
- The plant provides no nutritional value to the animal using it.
- The plant must be consumed during times of the year when certain diseases are more prevalent.
- Other animals in the group do not participate in its consumption.
New research reveals that our primate relatives, orangutans, possess this incredible capability. Scientists studied 50 orangutans in Borneo over a ten year period and found that females were chewing leaves of the native plant Dracaena cantleyi to create a soapy lather that they would then spread onto their skin. A chemical known as saponin makes the plant bitter to the taste and not a part of the orangutan’s normal diet, but its compounds have an anti-inflammatory quality that is “used to treat joint and muscle inflammation.” The hypothesis is that females engaged in this behavior more than males as they may experience more sore joints and achy muscles associated from carrying their young. The indigenous communities in the area also reported using this plant for the same healing purposes. This self-directing health behavior is a capability we should honor and respect in nonhuman animals.