Orangutan becomes first wild animal seen using medicinal plant on wound
May 3, 2024 1:42 AM   Subscribe

Sumatran orangutan becomes first wild animal seen using medicinal plant to treat wound.

A Sumatran orangutan has become the first wild animal seen self-medicating with a plant to heal a wound.

The male orangutan, named Rakus, had sustained a wound on his cheek pad, most likely from fighting other males, researchers said in a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Rakus was seen chewing liana leaves without swallowing them, then using his fingers to apply the resulting juice onto the wound, the researchers said.

Finally, he covered the wound up completely with a paste he had made by chewing the leaves and continued feeding on the plant.

Five days after he was seen applying the leaf paste onto the wound it was closed, and a month later barely visible.

It is the first documented case of active wound treatment by a wild animal with a plant known to have medicinal qualities.

The leaves were from a liana known as akar kuning (Fibraurea tinctoria in Latin), which is used in traditional medicine to relieve pain, reduce fever and treat various diseases, such as diabetes and malaria.

It also has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antioxidant properties.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries (26 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This is fascinating, and rather extraordinary that it's the first time this has been documented. I mean, where do we think "traditional medicine" came from, anyway?
posted by chavenet at 1:54 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Dr Zaius!
posted by rory at 2:08 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]

posted by tomsk at 2:16 AM on May 3 [13 favorites]

(This is so cool! And yes, surprising it's apparently not been observed before. I'm glad Rakus's face got better.)
posted by tomsk at 2:17 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]

Orangutans are clearly highly intelligent, have complex societies that transmit knowledge across generations, and yet were unable to communicate with them.

I sometimes suspect our galaxy is full of interstellar chitter-chatter between intelligent being but that we just don’t recognize it as such, given that we’re not even able to speak with our fellow great apes.
posted by Kattullus at 2:33 AM on May 3 [18 favorites]

I remember seeing a documentary several years ago showing a chimpanzee eating a particular plant to alleviate what they thought was a stomach ailment. It’s interesting that this is the first animal observed to treat a wound with a plant. This paper reviews observations of animals using plants to self medicate parasite infection is a common ailment.
posted by waving at 2:51 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

There's some Indonesian or Malaysian saying that goes like, "Orangutans can converse like people, but choose not to for fear of being pressed into labor."
posted by AlSweigart at 2:58 AM on May 3 [30 favorites]

Maybe that's where Pterry got this:

“Consider orangutans. In all the worlds graced by their presence, it is suspected that they can talk but choose not to do so in case humans put them to work, possibly in the television industry. In fact they can talk. It’s just that they talk in Orangutan. Humans are only capable of listening in Bewilderment.”

― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms
posted by mikelieman at 4:00 AM on May 3 [20 favorites]

Orangutans are my favorite primate (yes, even more than humans) and it thrills me to no end to see something like this. I look forward to us discovering even more about them.
posted by tommasz at 4:22 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Mostly surprised this wasn’t seen in chimps / bonobos first. Orangutans likewise pass the mirror test but less frequently and with longer periods of familiarization / higher ages, IIRC (much better than gorillas, though). Demonstrating the foundational elements of identity and observed tool use do not perfectly correspond (corvids, cephalopods both have the latter without the former), but they typically come paired in the highest tier of animal intelligence. Pretty impressive showing by my fellow gingers.
posted by Ryvar at 4:39 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Back in the 1970s a friend of mine who was a grad student in psychology told me about a professor of hers at Tulane who brought a chimpanzee to one lecture. He demonstrated that making prolonged eye contact with the chimpanzee upset it and it began screaning and hitting its hands on the floor in a threat display. But when he looked down, extended his arm and smacked his lips, the chimpanzee immediately ran over and started grooming him by picking through the hair on his arm as if it were looking for bugs. A year or two later, I was to the Seatte Zoo and at one point encountered an orangutan sunning itself in an outdoor cage. I thought of Jeanne's story and then looked down and smacked my lips. The orangutan glanced at me, smacked its lips back at me and extended this incredibly long skinny orange arm through the bars with an open hand. I was astonished but did not attempt grooming from an abundance of caution. When I read an article yesterday about the orangutan making a poultice for itself, I was amazed, fascinated and the memory of that extended hairy arm came to mind. Also, what Katullus said.
posted by y2karl at 6:30 AM on May 3 [19 favorites]

Well, hot damn. This means we're going to treat them with more respect, right? Right?
posted by Soliloquy at 8:08 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]

awww this is so fascinating. I'm not 100% surprised, except maybe that we've never witnessed this before, but it's really cool.

also, who has the cutest babies??
posted by supermedusa at 8:29 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Mostly surprised this wasn’t seen in chimps / bonobos first.

Chimpanzees use insects to treat wounds! Unfortunately, the researchers have not yet been able to identify which insects, so it's not yet certain what qualities the chimps are making use of.
posted by tavella at 8:34 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I loved seeing the mentions of other primates and civet cats eating leaves to (they presume, but don't necessarily know?) treat parasites, and chimps chewing and applying insect parts. I thought it was extra cool that it seemed like he chewed and ingested some leaf as well as applying some (and he healed so well!).
posted by ldthomps at 8:57 AM on May 3

"Humans are only capable of listening in Bewilderment.”

A place I find myself all too often.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:03 AM on May 3

Get in line.
posted by y2karl at 9:12 AM on May 3

Soliloquy: This means we're going to treat them with more respect, right?

They do have rights . . . 20 years ago, we were discovering and characterising immune genes while working in a Dublin hospital. The human genome was available and we were trawling through the chromosomal sequences looking for and finding anti-microbial peptides. As evolutionary biologists, we asked whether these genes and their protein products might be present in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, our nearest relative. It turned out that a family friend was Director of the Zoo and I asked "Next time you take a blood sample from one of the chimps, can we have 1ml to help push the frontiers of science?". Phlebotomists always take 10ml from sufficiently large animals [less for mice!] and there's always some to spare after the vet has carried out all the necessary tests. Well really, you would have thought I'd proposed to vivisect his infant son!

We certainly could not have any blood for any purpose except to service the well-being of the bled chimp. The point being that our primate relatives cannot do informed consent, but effectively deserve the same consideration as humans, which rights are vindicated by the appropriate ethics committee. IF we filled in the appropriate forms, submitted an application, secured approval from our Hospital Ethics Committee and the Zoo's Ethics Committee then maybe we could get a chimpanzee turd to play with. With PCR, and the fact that intestinal epithelial cells are continually being shed into the fecal matter, that would have been enough for our purposes. But the required bureaucracy put a stop to our gallop and we drifted off to chase down easier prey on the prairies of science.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:56 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]

@BobTheScientist: I was thinking in terms of not encroaching on their habitat, but yeah, it's not easy to get research done. Have you tried a more in silico approach and checked out protein databases?

(Not for nothing, but I am capable of doing this if you want to tell me what peptides you're looking for. I have an Ivy League degree, training in proteomics, fellowships in bioinformatics and single-cell, and no job to show for it! My MeMails are open.)
posted by Soliloquy at 11:28 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

The past two years have included some hard times. But occasionally MetaFilter lights a candle, with remarkable news that adds incremental hope, and remarkable stories from fascinating people. Thanks for this, everyone.
posted by angiep at 12:08 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

12 ribs. Just like you and me.
posted by tspae at 12:13 PM on May 3

*rubs hands together*

Time to change them from Orangutans to Consumer-tans! Capitalism!

Now, how do we explain the concept of money?
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 4:06 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

posted by clew at 4:40 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Maybe that's where Pterry got this:

Ah, no, I'm misremembering and I think I got my quote from Terry Pratchett. It may very well be completely original to him.
posted by AlSweigart at 4:56 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


On the topic of medicinal plants, I'm happy to report that I will see a Chinese traditional medicine doctor next Monday for a complex set of problems with my digestion, God willing. I'm optimistic.
posted by rabia.elizabeth at 6:46 AM on May 10

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