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Chimp, Heal Thyself: Another Example of Apes Self-Medicating in the Wild

Last month we presented a story about a Sumatran orangutan who had been observed applying a poultice made out of a medicinal plant to its face to cure an open wound, the first time such behavior had been recorded in the wild.

Now, in another example of higher primates performing a behavior which denotes a basic understanding of the medicinal properties of specific plants in their environment, scientist lead by researcher Dr Elodie Freymann from the University of Oxford, have published a paper in PLOS One showing their results after carefully observing two groups of wild chimpanzees in the Budongo Central Forest Reserve of Uganda.

As well as looking for signs of pain – an animal limping or holding its body in an unusual way – she and her colleagues collected samples of droppings and urine to check for illness and infection.

They paid particular attention when an injured or ill chimpanzee sought out something they do not normally eat – such as tree bark or fruit skin.

“We were looking for these behavioural clues that the plants might be medicinal,” Dr Freymann explained.

She described one particular chimp – a male – that had a badly wounded hand.

“He wasn’t using the hand to walk, he was limping,” she recalled. While the rest of this animal’s group were sitting around eating, the injured chimp limped away looking for ferns. “He was the only chimp to seek out and eat these ferns.”

The researchers collected and analysed the fern – a plant called Christella parasitica, which turned out to have potent anti-inflammatory properties.


The scientific team’s findings concluded that whenever an apparently sick or injured chimp sought out a plant that wasn’t part of their normal diet, 90% of the time those plants were shown (after being analyzed in a lab) to have anti-bacterial properties; a third of the analyzed extracts had natural anti-inflammatory properties, meaning the animals were taking them to relieve pain.

All the injured and sick chimps observed in the study made a full recovery (including the one with the wounded hand). “Of course, we can’t 100% prove that any of these cases were a direct result of eating these resources,” Dr. Freymann told BBC News. “But it highlights the medicinal knowledge that can be gained from observing other species in the wild and underscores the urgent need to preserve these ‘forest pharmacies’ for future generations.”

Dr. Freymann hopes that their research will show the benefits of observing the natural behavior of wild animals that could help us discover new medicines. If that can coax us to save the endangered habitats of these species then I’m all for it; but personally I feel the real message is one of humility, by showing us what many things the beings sharing this planet with us have yet to teach us.

  • Pharmacological and behavioral investigation of putative self-medicative plants in Budongo chimpanzee diets (PLOS One)

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