What Chimps Know That We’ve Forgotten

Who eats tree bark, dead wood, and ferns with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory effects? Chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees seek out plants’ medicinal properties to treat themselves when sick, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by Elodie Freymann and colleagues from the University of Oxford, UK.

Some of the plants they select are nutritionally poor but treat or lessen illness. The researchers combined behavioral observations of wild chimpanzees and pharmacological testing of the potentially medicinal plants, monitoring the behavior and health of 51 chimpanzees from two communities in the Budongo Central Forest Reserve in Uganda. They collected plant extracts from 13 species of trees and herbs that they suspect chimpanzees use to self-medicate and tested them for anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties.

They found that 88% of the plant extracts inhibited bacterial growth, and 33% had anti-inflammatory properties. Dead wood from a tree in the Dogbane family exhibited the strongest antibacterial activity and had anti-inflammatory properties. Bark and resin from the East African mahogany tree and leaves from a fern have potent anti-inflammatory effects. A male Chimpanzee with an injured hand ate leaves of the fern, which may have helped to reduce pain and swelling. One with a parasitic infection ate the bark of the cat-thorn tree.

This is the first study to provide behavioral and pharmacological evidence of the medicinal benefits to wild chimpanzees of feeding on bark and dead wood. The researchers believe that these medicinal plants growing in Budongo Central Forest Reserve could be helpful in new drugs to address the challenges of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and chronic inflammatory diseases.

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