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Animal Self-Medication

Story By: Jason Abels

Animal Self Medication is an area of Animal Behavior and Science that has always intrigued me. Documented instances of Self Medicating Animals has been observed by scientists for many years, but only lately have some truly amazing discoveries been made benefiting mankind.


I remember one time observing the Sanctuary’s pair of Brown Lemurs (Lemur fulvus) chewing off branches of Dill Weed planted in their habitat and rubbing their entire body with the branches. This Lemur Behavior fascinated me, as I have never observed it before. After pondering the possible purpose of this behavior for a few days I ended up calling my friend and local Primatologist, Dr. Sian Evans for some feedback. Right away she came up with the hypothesis that the lemurs were anointing themselves with the oils and fragrance of the dill as a possible Natural Mosquito Repellant or Insect Repellant. I was blown away and thought it was quite amazing and insightful of the lemurs. (SEE THE SANCTUARY’S LIVE LEMUR WEB CAMS)

It was only after reading a recent post in a Primate News Group on the studies of Self Medicating Chimpanzees in Tanzania by a primatologist named Mike Huffman that I was inspired to write this short piece. I wanted to expose the www.tigerhomes.org visitors to some of this primatologists remarkable discoveries.

In 1987, Mike Huffman observed Chimpanzee Behavior in a female chimp that caught his attention. It was obvious that this particular African Chimp was not feeling well. She lagged behind her group, was clearing in pain and eventually lay relatively motionless on her nest. She had no appetite with the exception of one particular plant, called Bitter Leaf known to science as Vernonia amygdalina. She was observed removing the bark and leaves of only the youngest stems, and then chewing on the Inner Pith. To make a long story short, the very next day she was up and running around like nothing happened. The primatologists then documented other Sick Chimps repeating this Self Medicating Behavior utilizing Bitter Leaf.

It wasn’t until his assistant Mohemadi Seifu Kalunde, mentioned that the local Tongwe People used Bitter Leaf to treat Stomach Cramps, Malaria Fever and even Intestinal Parasites that Mike made the connection that these Tanzanian Chimpanzees may be dosing themselves to treat some type of Intestinal Problem. The main difference here was the fact that the local people utilized three components of the Bitter Leaf Plant and the chimps only one. The locals used Bitter Leaf Bark, Bitter Leaf Root and Bitter Leaf Leaves in their remedies and the Self Medicating Chimps only utilized the inner pith of the plant.

It turns out that Bitter Leaf has been studied by man for 40 years and it was not until they focused their attention to studying the part the Chimpanzees were eating (the Inner Pith) that they discovered 13 new Chemical Compounds. Numerous of these compounds were then discovered to have Medicinal Properties and Therapeutic Effects. Mike has been trying to get Pharmaceutical Companies to hire and train scientists with skills in Animal Behavior, Botany, and Chemistry, to observe Wild Animal Diets and to study their compounds in the hopes of discovering new Breakthrough Medications. Unfortunately to the best of my knowledge they have all declined because it is too expensive and hard to find such multi-specialized researchers.

There are many cases of Self Medicating Animals, and the African Chimpanzee is definitely one of the smartest. Beneficial Properties isolated from food items from a Wild Chimpanzee Diet are being discovered on a regular basis including 3 new Plant Compounds called saponins that were isolated from plants consumed by chimps. These 3 compounds have been highly effective in suppressing Tumor Cells in Laboratory Experiments.

Wild Chimpanzees as well as Captive Chimps have also been well documented to eagerly consume the really Hairy Leaves of plants in the Aspilia Family. It is suggested that by swallowing these hairy leaves mechanically pushes Intestinal Worms and other Intestinal Parasites from the Chimpanzee’s Digestive Tract.

I love these kinds of facts and am so happy there are guys like Mike Huffman out their living amongst the remaining Wild Animals, studying and learning from them. It is so important that we protect EVERYTHING! The World needs to get a grip and stop destroying the remaining Wild Habitats, including the Rain Forests. In some way, everything in life is connected and it is all important. The cure for cancer is out their and it could easily reside in the Intestinal Tract of some tiny ant in South America that only eats a rare fungus that only grows on the bottom leaves of a canopy growing fern that is only pollinated by a rare migrating Fruit Bat! J The main mission of the www.tigerhomes.org Animal Sanctuary and web site is to create and interest and awareness to protect wildlife and the remaining Wild Habitats! We hope you found this short piece interesting and that you take the time to visit the Sanctuary’s numerous EXOTIC ANIMAL WEB CAMS.

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