Give a monkey a raw onion and what will it do? It will rub it all over its fur and body in an effort to prevent insect bites.
Research has shown that parrots will eat clay to help alleviate stomach pain, while chimpanzees will instead opt for eating rough leaves with hook-like hairs on their surface to combat their own intestinal parasites. These are all examples of ‘wild medicine’, behaviours which animals use to help them deal with external and internal health problems.
Heriot-Watt University psychologist, Dr Emily Messer, believes research into these behaviours and the natural remedies animals use will help conservation efforts of natural habitats and may also trigger interest in discovering more about animal behaviour.
“Such behaviours are not limited to the wilds of Africa,” said Dr Messer. “Research has shown that urban birds incorporate cigarette butts in their nests, where the chemicals may help to protect against parasites which could damage the chicks, and our own domestic dogs and cats will scratch and groom their fur to help deal with biting pests too.
“The more I investigated these fascinating behaviours the more I discovered other examples in different animal populations. But it’s not just animals that use resources in their environment to prevent infection and disease, humans have done the same. We treat nettle rash with a doc leaf or use aloe vera to treat sunburn. Some drugs which are commonly used today have been developed from plants. Aspirin is one particular drug which was originally developed from the plant meadowsweet. What we are seeing is both humans and non-human animals using wild medicines.”
Emily is continuing her observations in conjunction with RZSS, Edinburgh Zoo, where she gives talks and demonstrations on wild medicine.
Sponsored by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), she will also be sharing her experiences with audiences at the Women in Science event, Soapbox Science, on June 7, on an actual soapbox outside The Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow.
To see video of the capuchin monkeys rubbing onions on their bodies visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5TDlG441gA