Medicine and Health in the Animal Kingdom

Medicine and Health in the Animal Kingdom

Medicine and Health in the Animal Kingdom

Did you know that many animals such as chimpanzees, birds and elephants will often seek
out natural medicine? Indeed, various species in the animal kingdom will self-medicate using
natural ingredients in their surroundings, be it plantstuff with medicinal properties to
mineral-rich clay. You may have seen some examples yourself, like in dogs and cats, who
frequently eat grass if they have an upset tummy in order to encourage vomiting. This
practice can be seen in all sorts of forms in the animal kingdom, and can be quite
remarkable in their ingenuity.

The science of animal self-medication, zoopharmacognosy, is mostly elaborated in studies
on great apes. By the 1960s, Japanese anthropologist Toshisada Nishida noticed
chimpanzees eating non-nutritious leaves in Tanzania, and gradually the same remarks
were being made by more and more primatologists, on Jane Goodall’s Gombe primate
reserve. It was only until 1996 where it was suggested that the behaviour had medical
benefits, when it was observed a sick Chimp had quickly recovered the next day after
swallowing noxious leaves whole to deal with a parasitic infection.

It turns out, zoopharmacognosy can be found virtually everywhere in nature. In Kenya,
pregnant elephants eat specific leaves in order to help the delivery process. Birds, especially
Red and Green Macaws, eat clay to help digestion and boost their immune system against
bacteria. Fruit flies and Monarch Butterflies will often seek out anti-parasitic environments to
lay their eggs, such as milkweed or fermenting fruit where naturally produced ethanol can be

So just how did animals learn to do this? The simplest answer lies in a mix of evolutionary
and social processes; after all, thousands of years of trial and error is bound to produce some
results. It could have been on one random day, a sick baboon starts acting strange and eats leaves
from a plant they normally avoid, and suddenly started to feel better the next day. They learn this
fact, and next time they turn ill they might have other baboons nearby to watch and learn as well.
The baboons which found the plants when sick would survive more often, so evolution favoured a
population of baboons which could reliably self-medicate. But scientists are still trying to
understand times where these practices are very quickly learned,
such as in birds.

What about humans, why don’t we feel the need to run outside and start munching down on
somes leaves during a tummy ache? And why does health seem so simple in the natural world but not
ours? Indigenous human tribes do indeed engage with curative and preventive natural medicine, and
with them thousands of other strategies for surviving the natural world pass down through oral
history. But as we transitioned away from natural surroundings into permanent housing and
agricultural societies, we lost both our old ways and introduced a
wealth of new problems from our increasingly complex lives.

Today, lifestyles and conditions are far more diverse than our evolutionary pathways could
have ever accommodated. Our bodies are yet to catch up with realizing that sugar and salt is
no longer rare. Work has increasingly specialized for the individual that one may regularly
find themselves with little physical exercise or too much of it; Industries have introduced
strange new artificial substances which are unseen in the natural world; and denser
population numbers and animal co-habitation has created new diseases and problems. In
past societies, one’s life, diet, or activities was virtually identical to any other individual living
in the same community. Now, we can find extreme diversity in those aspects of lifestyle in a
single family.

Fortunately, modern medicine has of course advanced to tackle the challenges of the
developed world. With the advent of machine learning, greater computational speeds, DNA
research, and big data digital ledgers, the medical world is innovating at a remarkable
speed. Whilst nature can make health seem so simple at times, it is simply a matter of us
now leading more complicated lives. Thankfully, the wheels of progress turn, and technology
and medicine has improved to help us to prepare, anticipate, and overcome the new
challenges that our bodies face.

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