Orangutans Have Self-Medicating Ability, Study Finds

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Bornean orangutans possess the ability to cure themselves using medicinal substances from the wild, a new study suggests. The plant has anti-inflammatory properties, and it is used in a purposeful manner by these great apes.

The authors of the study published last week in Nature magazine said the plant called Dracaena cantleyi is an unattractive food source as it contained saponin, a chemical compound that generally makes them bitter. Despite this, scientists say the orangutans are often seen chewing the leaves to make a soapy leather which they would spread on to their skin.

The assumption that this is a deliberate act of self-medication was further strengthened when the scientists found that residents of human communities in Borneo reportedly also use D. cantleyi to treat joint and muscle pain. This was confirmed by pharmacological analysis that indicated D. cantleyi possesses anti-inflammatory properties.

“The fact that local people use the crushed leaves for sore muscles and joints further supports the concept that orangutans would use it to treat similar problems,” the researchers write in their study, as quoted by Mongabay. “Local indigenous people in Borneo, for example, use it to treat pain in their arms after a stroke, for muscular pain, and for sore bones and swellings.”

The study reported that most orangutans observed using it were females who spread it onto their arms, and the researchers suggest they may have been using it to treat arms that became sore from carrying offspring.

The finding puts orangutans in the list of self-medicating animals. Other animals with similar qualities include some birds that engage in “anting” by rubbing ants over their bodies; scientists think the formic acid produced by ants may be used by birds as a fungicide or bactericide. Capuchin monkeys have been observed rubbing their fur with plants that have anti-insect properties. And researchers believe chimpanzees often swallow whole the leaves of bitter plants they normally wouldn’t eat in order to rid their bodies of roundworms, a parasitic infestation in the digestive tract.

 

See: A Jungle Adventure with Kalimantan’s Orangutan

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Ardi Wirdana is a Jakarta-based journalist covering a variety of topics including business, policy, and news in Indonesia.