The Buzz on Animal Self-Medication

Some animals use plants or other materials as medications

By Carol Clark

Bee approaching flower

Louise Docker/Wikipedia

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even forest-dwelling ants do it. Increasing evidence suggests that a wide range of animals self-medicate.

Emory biologist Jaap de Roode wrote a review of recent studies on self-medication in animals for the journal Science. De Roode and coauthors Thierry Lefèvre and Mark Hunter recently published their own study showing that monarch butterflies use toxins found in milkweed to cure themselves and their offspring of disease. De Roode also discussed animal self-medication at the TEDxEmory 2013 in April.

Until a little more than a decade ago, primates were among the only animals besides humans thought to have the capacity for self-medication. Chimpanzees, for instance, had been observed in the wild eating plants with antiparasitic properties but little nutritional value.

Then some birds were found to line their nests with plants that ward off parasites, fungi, and other pathogens. In another example, last year ecologists in Mexico published a study suggesting that house sparrows and finches may be studding their nests with cigarette butts because nicotine reduces mite infestations.

“We need to pay close attention to how animals may use plants or other materials as medicine,” De Roode says, “because it has direct implications for human health and food production."

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