Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Nutrition and Behaviour Group Symposium on ‘Exploitation of medicinal properties of plants by animals and man through food intake and foraging behaviour’

Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants

Michael A. Huffmana1 c1

a1 Section of Ecology, Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, 41-2 Kanrin, Inuyama Aichi, 484-8506, Japan


Early in the co-evolution of plant-animal relationships, some arthropod species began to utilize the chemical defences of plants to protect themselves from their own predators and parasites. It is likely, therefore, that the origins of herbal medicine have their roots deep within the animal kingdom. From prehistoric times man has looked to wild and domestic animals for sources of herbal remedies. Both folklore and living examples provide accounts of how medicinal plants were obtained by observing the behaviour of animals. Animals too learn about the details of self-medication by watching each other. To date, perhaps the most striking scientific studies of animal self-medication have been made on the African great apes. The great ape diet is often rich in plants containing secondary compounds of non-nutritional, sometimes toxic, value that suggest medicinal benefit from their ingestion. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) are known to swallow whole and defecate intact leaves. The habit has been shown to be a physical means of purging intestinal parasites. Chimpanzees and man co-existing in sub-Saharan Africa are also known to ingest the bitter pith of Vernonia amygdalina for the control of intestinal nematode infections. Phytochemical studies have demonstrated a wide array of biologically-active properties in this medicinal plant species. In light of the growing resistance of parasites and pathogens to synthetic drugs, the study of animal self-medication and ethno-medicine offers a novel line of investigation to provide ecologically-sound methods for the treatment of parasites using plant-based medicines in populations and their livestock living in the tropics.


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Michael Huffman, fax +81 568 63 538,