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How Animals Self-Medicate, What We Can Learn

animals self-medicate

People sometimes self-medicate with alcohol, food, and drugs, but animals self-medicate with plants. A new study by a University of Michigan team discovered some of the fascinating ways animals medicate themselves and their offspring, which begs the question about what we can learn from the animals.

Animals self-medicate with plants

It’s probably no surprise that among man’s closest relatives, the chimpanzees have been known to seek out and use plants to treat their health problems. But you may be surprised that creatures considered to be much lower on the evolutionary scale also do the same thing.

How low? How about ants, birds, and butterflies? According to ecologist Mark Hunter, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues, they have found that ants use specific resin from conifer trees to prevent microbial contamination of their nests, finches use cigarette butts to reduce mite infestations, and some monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed because it has anti-parasite properties.

While this all may sound like just some interesting information to share during a cocktail party, the truth is, these observations of animal self-medication can teach humans something about the potential powers of plants and other substances. As Hunter noted, “We can learn a lot about how to treat parasites and disease by watching other animals.”

Another reason this study is important is because it highlights the value of plants in treating symptoms and disease. Plants as herbal remedies and as a basis for pharmaceutical products have already been shown to be a promising and beneficial resource, and if we watch animals and how they self-medicate with plants, it may help us learn which other plants have potential for humans.

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During their field observations, Hunter and his colleagues also noted that butterflies, fruit flies, and other animals select food for their offspring that minimizes the effects of disease. Thus these creatures somehow know how to take care of offspring through dietary choices, a lesson that humans could well afford to learn.

The researchers observed that gypsy moth caterpillars that eat plants high in specific toxic substances help prevent the transfer of viruses among the caterpillars, which then boosts the number of moths. This is an example of how self-medication supports self-preservation.

What relevance could this research have on human health? In addition to the animals pointing out potential beneficial plants for people, the dietary choices of some animals support the importance of the idea that “dietary choices made by parents influence the long-term health of their children.”

Other important lessons humans may learn from animals that self-medicate could have a critical impact on agriculture and food production. For example, the current concerns regarding the decline in the honeybee population may be improved because researchers have found that the insects use antimicrobial resins in their nests, and beekeepers have been in involved in reducing that resin, a practice they did not realize had detrimental effects.

So while some scientists are out watching the birds and the bees, they are gathering critical information about behavior that could have an impact on human welfare. How animals self-medicate may teach us a great deal about how to care for our own health.

De Roodge JC et al. Self-medication in animals. Science 2013; 340(6129): 150

Image: Morguefile