Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

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

  • Michael A. Huffman (a1)

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.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Corresponding author: Dr Michael Huffman, fax +81 568 63 538,
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

GO Adegoke & BJ Skura (1994) Nutritional profile and anti-microbial spectrum of the spice Aframomum danielli. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 45, 175182

Y Asaka , T Kubota & AB Kulkrani (1977) Studies on a bitter principle from. Vernonia anthelmintica. Phytochemistry 16, 18381839

M Baker (1996) Fur rubbing: Use of medicinal plants by capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus). American Journal of Primatology 38, 263270

M Boppre (1978) Chemical communication, plant relationships, and mimicry in the evolution of danaid butterflies. Applied Experimental Entomology 24, 264277

M Boppre (1984) Redefining ‘Pharmacophagy’. Journal of Chemical Ecology 10, 11511154

R Cowen (1990) Medicine on the wild side. Science News 138, 280282

J Dupain , Elsacker Van , Nell L , Garcia C , Ponce P , Huffman MA F (2002) New evidence for leaf swallowing and Oesophagostomum infection in bonobos ( Pan paniscus ). International Journal of Primatology 23, 10531062

P Ehrlich & PH Raven (1964) Butterflies and plants: A study in coevolution. Evolution 18, 586608

NL Etkin (1996) Medicinal cuisines: diet and ethnopharmacology. International Journal of Pharmacology 34, 313326

WF Freeland (1980) Mangaby ( Cercocebus albigena ) movement patterns in relation to food availability and fecal contamination. Ecology 61, 12971303

BL Hart (1990) Behavioral adaptations to pathogens and parasites: Five strategies. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review 14, 273294

G Hausfater & BJ Meade (1982) Alternation of sleeping groves by yellow baboons ( Papio cynocepahalus ) as a strategy for parasite avoidance. Primates 23, 287297

MA Huffman (2001) Self-medicative behavior in the African Great Apes – an evolutionary perspective into the origins of human traditional medicine. BioScience 51, 651661

MA Huffman & JM Caton (2001) Self-induced increase of gut motility and the control of parasitic infections in wild chimpanzees. International Journal of Primatology 22, 329346

MA Huffman , S Gotoh , LA Turner , M Hamai & K Yoshida (1997) Seasonal trends in intestinal nematode infection and medicinal plant use among chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. Primates 38, 111125

MA Huffman , JE Page , MVK Sukhdeo , S Gotoh , MS Kalunde , T Chandrasiri & GHN Towers (1996b) Leaf-swallowing by chimpanzees, a behavioral adaptation for the control of strongyle nematode infections. International Journal of Primatology 17, 475503

MA Huffman & M Seifu (1989) Observations on the illness and consumption of a possibly medicinal plant Vernonia amygdalina (Del.), by a wild chimpanzee in the Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania. Primates 30, 5163

G Idani , S Kuroda , T Kano & R Asato (1994) Flora and vegetation of Wamba Forest, Central Zaire with reference to Bonobo ( Pan paniscus ) foods. TROPICS 3, 309332

M Jisaka , M Kawanaka , H Sugiyama , K Takegawa , MA Huffman , H Ohigashi & K Koshimizu (1992a) Antischistosomal activities of sesquiterpene lactones and steroid glucosides from Vernonia amygdalina, possibly used by wild chimpanzees against parasite-related diseases. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 56, 845846

M Jisaka , H Ohigashi , T Takagaki , H Nozaki , T Tada , M Hirota , R Irie , MA Huffman , T Nishida , M Kaji & K Koshimizu (1992b) Bitter steroid glucosides, vernoniosides A1, A2, and A3 and related B1 from a possible medicinal plant Vernonia amygdalina, used by wild chimpanzees. Tetrahedron 48, 625632

M Jisaka , H Ohigashi , K Takegawa , M Hirota , R Irie , MA Huffman & K Koshimizu (1993a) Steroid glucosides from Vernonia amygdalina, a possible chimpanzee medicinal plant. Phytochemistry 34, 409413

M Jisaka , H Ohigashi , K Takegawa , MA Huffman & K Koshimizu (1993b) Antitumor and antimicrobial activities of bitter sesquiterpene lactones of Vernonia amygdalina, a possible medicinal plant used by wild chimpanzees. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 57, 833834

K Koshimizu , H Ohigashi , MA Huffman , T Nishida & H Takasaki (1993) Physiological activities and the active constituents of potentially medicinal plants used by wild chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. International Journal of Primatology 14, 345356

SM Kupchan , RJ Hemingway , A Karim & D Werner (1969) Tumor inhibitors XLVII. Vernodalin and vernomygdin, two new cytotoxic sesquiterpene lactones from Vernonia amygdalina Del. Journal of Organic Chemistry 34, 39083911

EJ Messner & RW Wrangham (1996) In vitro testing of the biological activity of Rubia cordifolia leaves on primate Strongyloide species. Primates 37, 105108

J Moutsamboté , T Yumoto , M Mitani , T Nishihara , S Suzuki & S Kuroda (1994) Vegetation and list of plant species identified in the Nouabalé-Ndoki Forest, Congo. TROPICS 3, 277293

A Murakami , H Ohigashi & K Koshimizu (1996) Anti-tumor promotion with food phytochemicals: A strategy for cancer chemoprevention. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 60, 18

GS Nelson (1960) Schistosome infections as zoonoses in Africa. Transcripts of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 54, 301314

H Ohigashi , MA Huffman , D Izutsu , K Koshimizu , M Kawanaka , H Sugiyama , GC Kirby , DC Warhurst , D Allen , CW Wright , JD Phillipson , P Timmon-David , F Delmas , R Elias & G Balansard (1994) Toward the chemical ecology of medicinal plant-use in chimpanzees: The case of Vernonia amygdalina Del. A plant used by wild chimpanzees possibly for parasite-related diseases. Journal of Chemical Ecology 20, 541553

H Ohigashi , M Jisaka , T Takagaki , H Nozaki , T Tada , MA Huffman , T Nishida , M Kaji & K Koshimizu (1991) Bitter principle and a related steroid glucoside from Vernonia amygdalina, a possible medicinal plant for wild chimpanzees. Agricultural and Biological Chemistry 55, 12011203

H Ohigashi , Y Sakai , K Yamaguchi , I Umezaki & K Koshimizu (1992) Possible anti-tumor promoting properties of marine algae and in vitro activity of wakame seaweed extract. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 56, 994995

CO Okunji & MM Iwu (1988) Control of schistomsomiasis using Nigerian medicinal molluscicides. International Journal of Crude Drug Research 26, 246252

JE Page , FF Balza , T Nishida & GHN Towers (1992) Biologically active diterpenes from Aspilia mossambicensis, a chimpanzee medicinal plant. Phytochemistry 31, 34373439

JE Page , MA Huffman , V Smith & GHN Towers (1997) Chemical basis for medicinal consumption of Aspilia (Asteraceae) leaves by chimpanzees: a re-analysis. Journal of Chemical Ecology 23, 22112225

R Rausch (1954) Studies on the helminth fauna of Alaska. XXI. Taxonomy, morphological variation, and ecology of Diphyllobothirium ursi n. sp. provis. on Kodiak Island. Journal of Parasitology 40, 540563

SH Riesenberg (1948) Magic and medicine in Ponape. Southwest Journal of Anthropology 4, 406429

E Rodriguez , M Aregullin , T Nishida , S Uehara , R Wrangham , Z Abramowski , A Finlayson & GHN Towers (1985) Thiarubrine A, a bioactive constituent of Aspilia (Asteraceae) consumed by wild chimpanzees. Experientia 41, 419420

S Sengputa (1981) Adaptive significance of the use of margosa leaves in nests of house sparrows Passer domesticus. Emu 81, 114115

CEG Tutin , LJT White , EA Williamson , M Fernandez & G McPherson (1994) List of plant species identified in the northern part of the Lopé Reserve, Gabon. TROPICS 3, 249276

M Wink , A Hofer , M Bilfinger , E Englert , M Martin & D Schneider (1993) Geese and dietary allelochemicals – food palatability and geophagy. Chemoecology 4, 93107

RW Wrangham (1995) Relationship of chimpanzee leaf-swallowing to a tapeworm infection. American Journal of Primatology 37, 297303

RW Wrangham & T Nishida (1983) Aspilia spp. leaves: A puzzle in the feeding behavior of wild chimpanzees. Primates 24, 276282

RM Wrangham , ME Rogers , G Isabirye-Basuta (1993) Ape food density in the ground layer in Kibale Forest, Uganda. African Journal of Ecology 31, 4957

T Yumoto , J Yamagiwa , N Mwanza & T Maruhashi (1994) List of plant species identified in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Zaire. TROPICS 3, 295308

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
  • ISSN: 0029-6651
  • EISSN: 1475-2719
  • URL: /core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 900 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 858 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 28th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.