Sick chimpanzees seek out medicinal plants to self-medicate, study reveals

Wild chimps in Uganda have been filmed seeking out and eating plants with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, ITV News' Science Correspondent Martin Stew reports

Scientists have found more than a dozen "healing plants" with the help of some wild chimpanzees, after they were observed seeking out infection-fighting plants to self-medicate.

The "thrilling discovery" was made by a group of researchers who followed 51 chimpanzees in the Budongo Central Forest Reserve in Uganda for several months.

They observed the chimpanzees feeding on bark, dead wood and leaves from plants that were not part of their normal diet after they had become ill or injured.

Dr Elodie Freymann, from the Univerty of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, told ITV News that observing chimpanzees could help scientists find effective new medicines for humans.

Chimpanzees in an African forest Credit: Dr Elodie Freymann/AP

She says that watching the great apes seek help from nature will be "incredibly important" in the next few years as antibiotic resistance is "on the rise" and "there are new global pandemics".

"Because we share so much of our genetics with chimpanzees, they are the perfect model for discovering new pharmaceuticals that could be effective for us as well," she said.

"The forest is full of plants with amazing medicinal properties - even if we started testing all those trees today, we would never get around to testing all of them, so by watching the chimps - who live in the forest, exist in the forest, and survive in the forest every day - we can in a way use them as our teachers to guide us to plants with compounds that could be effective medicines for us as well."

Dr Elodie Freymann says we can use chimpanzees 'as our teachers' to guide us to medicinal plants

Researchers turned into "detectives" for the study, which was published in the journal Plos One, gathering "behavioural clues" in a bid to find out whether the great apes were intentionally self-medicating.

By analysing video recordings, the team found a wounded male chimpanzee eating the leaves of a fern known as Christella parasitica, which was shown to have anti-inflammatory properties when tested in the lab.

The fern may have helped to reduce pain and swelling, the researchers said.

Another chimpanzee, who had a parasite infection, was seen eating the bark of the cat-thorn tree (Scutia myrtina), a behaviour that had never been seen before in this group.

Chimpanzees feeding on bark, credit: Dr Elodie Freymann

Lab tests also showed other plant extracts, such as dead wood from a tropical forest tree called Alstonia boonei and bark and resin from the East African mahogany tree (Khaya anthotheca), to have strong wound-healing and infection-fighting properties.

Of the plant samples, 88% of those analysed in the lab had antibiotic properties, researchers said, and 33% showed anti-inflammatory benefits.

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