Monkeys Found To Self-Medicate
In New Jungle Study

By E. J. Mundell

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - As if on a visit to their neighborhood pharmacy, capuchin monkeys living in the jungles of Costa Rica appear to seek out and apply a variety of natural remedies to their fur to keep their skin healthy and bug-free.
According to researchers, this type of animal self-medication suggests that humans may not have a lock on medical science.
"The monkeys may intentionally select these plants for their medicinal value," according to researcher Maria DeJoseph of Exponent Health Group in New York City. She said some of the plant-based therapies used by the capuchins might even be useful in treating human skin ailments.
The findings are published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Much of DeJoseph's findings stem from the work of American anthropologist Dr. Mary Baker, who has spent many years observing the small, tree-dwelling capuchins in their Costa Rican habitat. Baker has long observed the monkey's "fur-rubbing" behavior, where the animals use their mouths and hands to break up seedpods and leaves from specific plants before rubbing them into their fur.
Investigating further, DeJoseph and co-researcher Dr. Robin Taylor traveled to Costa Rica to identify and collect samples of the plants used in fur-rubbing. Analyses conducted at a laboratory in the United States confirmed what DeJoseph had suspected--that fur-rubbing was actually a sophisticated form of self-medication.
The leaves of two plants used by the capuchins--Piper marginatum ("cake bush"), Clematis dioica ("Old man's beard"), and the seedpods of a third plant, Sloanea ternifola, each have "some antibacterial, antifungal and antiarthropodal (bug-repelling) properties," DeJoseph told Reuters Health. Extracts of both cake bush and S. ternifolia inhibited the growth of disease-causing staphylococcus and candida microbes, while cake bush extract also proved effective in repelling ants.
Sloanea ternifola seedpods may do double duty as both tool and drug: according to the researchers, the monkeys also use the spiky pods as combs to rid their fur of parasites.
DeJoseph stressed that its not entirely clear that capuchins consciously seek out medicines in their environment. "The behavior might be similar to learned taste aversions," where animals (including humans) learn to avoid foods that make them sick, she explained.
"Similarly, we might be able to remember what makes us feel better when we are not well." Although more study needs to be done to confirm that theory, DeJoseph said, "there are anecdotal accounts amongst zookeepers that primates can make these associations."
And the capuchins aren't alone at playing doctor within the natural world. Zoologists believe certain species of bears may also engage in therapeutic fur-rubbing, while chimpanzees, baboons and spider monkeys eat specific plants to rid themselves of gastrointestinal ailments.
The bottom line, according to DeJoseph, is that humans could still learn a thing or two from animals when it comes to medicine.
"Amongst indigenous peoples there are folk tales and myths about animals telling people about medicinal plants. It is possible that people learned about some medicines by watching animals," she said. In fact, DeJoseph's team believes that natural remedies used by the capuchins "might lead to strategies for the prevention and treatment of ectoparasite infestations in humans."
SOURCE: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 2002;46:924-925.
Copyright 2002 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved


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