Chimps: So Like Us… Only Smarter.

December 21st, 2007at 07:09am Posted by Eli

No, this isn’t about them being smarter than college students, but rather about their amazing medicinal instincts:

Ugandan and French scientists have for months been observing the behavior of a group of chimpanzees whose uncanny aptitude for self-medication could help their human cousins discover new drugs.

The great apes’ ability to treat ailments by adjusting their diet has long been observed by scientists, including world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, but a project in Uganda’s Kibale forest offers a unique opportunity for pharmaceutical research.

(…)

Uganda is an ideal research ground for the scientists’ double mission of better understanding the chimps’ behavior and using them as guides towards new molecules — and potentially new drugs.

(…)

The key moment in the observation is when one among the group of around 50 chimps… gets sick.

The primate’s choice of food — what he pulls out of his medicine chest — is packed with information that could lead the scientists to new discoveries.

“We want to compare which plants are used by the traditional healers or traditional practitioners, and the medicines used by chimpanzees. Is there a relation for the kind of treatment they go for?,” [Ugandan botanics professor John] Kasenene said.

(…)

[French veterinary professor Sabrina] Krief explained how a chimp named Yogi, suffering from intestinal worms, ingested Aneilema aequinoctiale leaves in the morning and Albizia grandibracteata bark in the evening.

Such plants have been used in traditional medicine in some areas and the Kibale team later confirmed through in vitro testing that they acted against parasites.

Another male chimpanzee who had been feverish and weak was observed eating only Trichilia rubescens leaves for a whole day.

The plants’ molecules, later isolated by the scientists in a laboratory, were found to be effective against malaria.

“These findings have allowed us to discover new plant molecules with significant properties against malaria, worms or tumours,” Krief said.

(…)

“What is surprising to me is that these chimps have no chemist, no lab… They simply move in and collect plants and eventually find themselves getting cured,” [botanical researcher Dennis Kamoga] marvelled. “It’s a proof that they are very close to us.”

(…)

“It’s quite rare to find active molecules but especially new molecules which might put us on the path to developing new pharmaceuticals,” which is the ultimate goal of the project, Krief said.

The French scientist said she hoped that, while advancing medicine for humans, the research project in Kibale could also contribute to “a better understanding and protection of the flora and the great apes” in the forest, both of which include critically endangered species.

I wonder if it’s learned behavior, or if it’s purely instinctive. If it’s learned, then they’re carefully observing and remembering what other chimps do when they get sick. I wonder how they figured it out in the first place, though – perhaps one chimp happened to eat one of those medicinal plants when they were sick, started feeling better, and made the connection that they felt better because of what they ate.

Pretty fascinating either way.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


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