Let me tell you a story that might make you reconsider who the most intelligent species on earth is. This is a story called Zoopharmacognosy – the word is derived from Zoo (animal), pharma (drug) and cognosy (knowing). This is a story of animals knowing how to heal themselves. Here are a few examples:
Jane Goodall recorded how chimps self-medicated. They would sometimes eat plants that made them vomit. They also swallowed whole the leaves of Aneilema aequinoctiale, an antiparasitic plant.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on Milkweed plants. But, when they are infected by parasites, they choose a different variety of Milkweed, one with far higher levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. When the larvae hatch, they ingest this Milkweed, which decreases their parasite infestation.
Interestingly, unparasitised larvae ingesting this plant, are more likely to die. The Monarch mom must get it right, or her babies die. And she does get it right.
Giraffes (and several other animals) with upset stomachs eat large quantities of termite mound soil. Now, this soil has a particularly high clay content. Clay is an effective binding agent and detoxifier, meaning it absorbs and deactivates toxins from bacteria. It also contains the mineral kaolin, which is used in many human treatments for diarrhoea.
Euphorbiaceae plants are not part of the normal diet of Chacma baboons. But, occasionally, and only in very minute amounts, these baboons will eat the leaves. Scientists think the reason for this is the stimulatory properties that these plants have. But, the interesting thing is, they don’t overdose, they know the correct dose.
European Starlings, when they are suffering from feather parasites, collect and crush ants. Then they vigorously rub the dead ants into the plumage. Crushing ants in this way causes the release of formic acid (a strong insecticide and bacteriocide) and benzoquinones (insect repellents).
There are plenty of other examples. And I am sure you have observed some self-medication in your own pets. The important thing is – animals know what herbs to use, they know what doses to take and can sometimes even protect their offspring in advance of their birth.
How did we humans forget this?