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Zoopharmacognosy refers to the behaviour in which non-human animals self-medicate by selecting and ingesting or topically applying plants, soils, insects and psychoactive drugs to treat and prevent disease. Coined by Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University, the word is derived from roots zoo ("animal"), pharma ("drug"), and gnosy ("knowing"). The term gained familiarity in the public due to press attention from Cindy Engel in Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them. A well-known example of zoopharmacognosy is when dogs eat grass to induce vomiting, however, the behaviour is much more diverse than this. Observers have noted that some species ingest non-foods such as clay, charcoal, and even toxic plants, apparently to ward off parasitic infestation or poisoning.
The subject of self-medication in wild animals remains controversial because the evidence is mostly circumstantial or anecdotal, but there are many purported examples.
Many examples of zoopharmacognosy involve an animal ingesting a substance with potential medicinal properties. Some of these are ingested when the animal is apparently well and would be preventative or prophylactic, others are ingested when the animal is unwell and would be theraputic or curative.
Wild chimpanzees with upset stomaches seek whole leaves of the Aspilia plant. These contain thiarubrine-A, a chemical active against intestinal nematode parasites. The chimpanzees pick the Aspilia leaves and roll them around in their mouths, rather than chewing, before swallowing the capsule-like leaves whole. They swallow as many as 15-35 Aspilia leaves in each bout of this behaviour, particularly in the rainy season when there are many parasitic larvae leading to an increased risk of infection. Chimpanzees have learned to distinguish between harmful plant parts and parts that contain beneficial compounds. This behaviour is learned from other group members in a form of social learning. Chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas eat the fruits of Aframomum angustifolium; laboratory assays of homogenized fruit and seed extracts show significant anti-microbial activity.
As well as whole-leaf swallowing, chimpanzees will select bitter leaves for chewing. It was noted that infection of parasites drops noticeably after chewing leaves of pith (Vernonia amyddalina) which have antiparasitic activity against Schistosoma, Plasmodium and Leishmania. This plant is not consumed at a regular basis by chimpanzees, but when it is eaten, it is often in small amounts by those individuals that appear ill.
Jane Goodall witnessed chimpanzees eating particular bushes, apparently to make themselves vomit.. There are reports that chimpanzees swallow whole leaves of particular rough-leaved plants such as Aneilema aequinoctiale; these remove parasitic worms from their intestines. Illustrating the medicinal knowledge of some species, apes have been observed selecting a particular part of a medicinal plant by taking off leaves then breaking the stem to suck out the juice.
Anubis baboons (Papio anubis) and hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) in Ethiopia use fruits and leaves of Balanites aegyptiaca to control schistosomiasis. Its fruits contain diosgenin, a hormone precursor which presumably hinders the development of schistosomes.
African elephants (Loxodonta africana) apparently self-medicate to induce birth by chewing on the leaves of a particular tree from the family Boraginaceae; Kenyan women brew a tea from this tree to induce childbirth.
White-nosed coatis (Nasua narica) in Panama take the menthol-like smelling resin from freshly scraped bark of Trattinnickia aspera (Burseraceae) and vigorously rub it into their own fur and/or that of conspecifics, possibly to kill ectoparasites such as fleas, ticks, and lice, as well as biting insects such as mosquitoes. A chemical study of the resin has revealed the presence of the triterpenes α - and β-amyrin, the eudesmane derivative β-selinene, and the sesquiterpene lactone 8β-hydroxyasterolide.
Domestic cats and dogs often select and ingest plant material, apparently to induce vomiting.
Tapirs, forest elephants, colobus monkeys, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees seek out and eat clay, which absorbs intestinal bacteria and their toxins and alleviates stomach upset and diarrhoea . Kaopectate™, a pharmaceutical commercially sold to treat gastrointestinal upset and other intestinal ailments, uses a type of clay as its active ingredient.
Standard laboratory cages prevent mice from performing several natural behaviours for which they are highly motivated. As a consequence, laboratory mice sometimes develop abnormal behaviours indicative of emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. To improve welfare, these cages are sometimes enriched with items such as nesting material, shelters and running wheels. Sherwin and Olsson tested whether such enrichment influenced the consumption of Midazolam, a drug widely used to treat anxiety in humans. Mice in standard cages, standard cages but with unpredictable husbandry, or enriched cages, were given a choice of drinking either non-drugged water or a solution of the Midazolam. Mice in the standard and unpredictable cages drank a greater proportion of the anxiolytic solution than mice from enriched cages, indicating that mice from the standard and unpredictable laboratory caging may have been experiencing greater anxiety than mice from the enriched cages.
Some animals apply substances with medicinal properties to their skin. Again, this can be prophylactic or curative. In some cases, this is known as self-anointing.
North American brown bears (Ursos arctos) make a paste of Osha roots (Ligusticum porteri) and saliva and rub it through their fur to repel insects or soothe bites. This plant, locally known as bear root, contains 105 active compounds, such as coumarins that may repel insects when topically applied. Navajo Indians are said to have learned to use this root medicinally from the bear for treating stomach aches and infections.
More than 200 species of song birds wipe ants through their plumage in a behaviour often called anting. Birds grasp ants in their bill and wipe them vigorously along the spine of each feather down to the base. Sometimes, they roll in ant hills twisting and turning to allow the ants to crawl through their feathers. The ants used most commonly by birds are those which spray formic acid. In laboratory tests, this acid is harmful to feather lice. Its vapour alone is enough to kill them.
Some birds select nesting material rich in anti-microbial agents which may protect themselves and their young from harmful infestations or infections. Examples include European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lining their nests with wild carrot (Daucus carota) and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) with materials from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). House Sparrows have also been observed to change from neem to quinine-rich leaves of the Krishnachua tree (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) during an outbreak of malaria; quinine controls the symptoms of malaria.
Value to humans
In an interview with Neil Campbell, Rodriguez describes the importance of biodiversity to medicine:
- "Some of the compounds we've identified by zoopharmacognosy kill parasitic worms, and some of these chemicals may be useful against tumors. There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world."
- Gerber, Suzanne (1998). "Not just monkeying around.". Vegetarian Times.
- Engel, Cindy (2002). Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them. Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
- Biser, Jennifer A. (1998). "Really wild remedies — medicinal plant use by animals". nationalzoo.si.edu. National Zoological Park. Retrieved 2005-01-13.
- Costa-Neto, E.M. (2012). "Zoopharmacognosy, the self-medication behavior of animals.". Interfaces Científicas-Saúde e Ambiente 1 (1): 61–72.
- Jacobs, J.Q. (2000). "Bonobo's late night tales". Retrieved November 27, 2013.
- Reynolds, Vernon (2005). The chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest: ecology, behaviour, and conservation. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-0-19-851545-6.
- Campbell, N.A. (1996). An interview with Eloy Rodriguez. Biology (4th edition). Benjamin Cummings, NY. p. 23. ISBN 0-8053-1957-3.
- Raman, R; Kandula, S (2008). "Zoopharmacognosy: self-medication in wild animals". Resonance 13: 245–253.
- Lozano, G.A. (1998). "Parasitic stress and self-medication in wild animals.". Advances in the Study of Behavior 27: 291–317.
- Linden, Eugene (2002). The Octopus and the Orangutan: More Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity. New York City: Plume. pp. 16–17, 104–105, 191. ISBN 0-452-28411-2. OCLC 49627740.
- Huffman, M.A. (1997). "Current evidence for self-medicationin primates: a multidisciplinary perspective.". Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 40: 171–200.
- Orzeck, R. (2007). "Pondering the mysteries of our universe: Why do dogs eat grass?". Retrieved October 28, 2013.
- Bolton, K.A.; Campbell, V.M.; Burton, F.D. (1998). "Chemical analysis of soil of Kowloon (Hong Kong) eaten by hybrid macaques.". Journal of Chemical Ecology 24: 195–205.
- Sherwin, C.M.; Olsson, I.A.S. (2004). "Housing conditions affect self-administration of anxiolytic by laboratory mice.". Animal Welfare 13: 33–38.
- Diamond, J (1999). "Evolutionary biology: Dirty eating for healthy living". Nature 400 (6740): 120–121. doi:10.1038/22014. PMID 10408435.
- Westergaard, G.; Fragaszy, D. (1987). "Self-treatment of wounds by a capuchin monkey (Cebus apella)". Human Evolution 2 (6). pp. 557–56.
- Ritchie, B.G.; Fragaszy, D.M. (1988). "Capuchin monkey (Cebus apella) grooms her infant's wound with tools.". American Journal of Primatology 16 (4): 345–348.
- Ichida, Jann. "Birds use herbs to protect their nests, BJS, Science Blog, Wed, 2004-05-26". Proceedings of the 104th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.