Butterfly Rx

Beauty bugs may self-medicate

By Carol Clark

Monarch Butterfly

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Certain species of butterflies may have developed their own version of stopping by the corner drugstore when they need medicine.

Assistant Professor of Biology Jaap de Roode is investigating whether monarch butterflies can cure themselves and their offspring of disease by using medicinal plants. The National Science Foundation awarded de Roode a $500,000 grant to further his research, which focuses on the behavior of monarchs infected with a protozoan parasite.

“We have shown that some species of milkweed, the larvae’s food plants, can reduce parasite infection in the monarchs,” says de Roode. “And we also have found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring.”

Few studies have been done on self-medication by animals, but some scientists have theorized that the practice may be more widespread than we realize.

“The results are also exciting because the behavior is trans-generational,” says Thierry Lefevre, a postdoctoral fellow in de Roode’s lab. “While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her offspring benefit.”

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