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Animals Have Doctors in the Wild As Well

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 10:25 AM EDT

People have argued that one of the biggest differences between humans and other animals is the use of language and grammar. Although this is a huge difference, it has not hindered animals from performing certain survival tasks that greatly resemble those of humans. When animals fall ill or get hurt, they find ways to heal themselves or others, similarly to how humans used to do it before the introduction of prescription drugs. In the recent issue of Science, scientists decided to rank and list animal doctors based on how well they treat medical conditions within their species.

The first animal on the list is the primate. Primates include gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and are very good foragers of medicinal plants. These non-human primates have learned that consuming certain rough leaves can help induce vomiting, which would get rid of the parasites living in their intestines. Furthermore, scientists have observed how chimpanzees force themselves to eat plants that are extremely bitter and have no nutritional value when they are infected with roundworms. These plants are known to have anti-parasitic effects.

The assistant professor of biology at Emory University and lead author of this article, Jaap de Roode stated that primates "are not so different from [humans]...they can learn from each other and they can make associations between...taking medicinal plants and feeling better."

Despite observing how non-human primates actively reach for natural remedies, Roode explained that certain animals and insects unconsciously self-medicate, which scientists believe is innate. The scientists tested this theory by observing how infected monarch butterflies choose to lay their eggs on anti-parasitic milkweed, where as healthy monarch butterflies do not display this action. The scientists are not sure if the actions are conscious or if they are just natural for these insects, which are pretty high on the list of self-medicating organisms.

The monarch butterflies are not the only insects that avoid infections before they happen. The woolly bear caterpillars tend to consume plants that are toxic to parasites. Whether or not the caterpillars know that and choose to eat the plants or just innately eat them to unconsciously protect themselves is unclear. Aside from insects, the researchers also mention that some birds that are city dwellers will collect cigarettes butts and place them into their nests in order to combat mite infestations.

Even though these animals and insects live in the wild, the concept of doctor and medicine is not that different for them than it is for humans. 

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