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Chimpanzees May Self-Medicate With Plants, Using the Forest as a Pharmacy

Image of a chimp.

Chimpanzees may be using the forest like their own personal pharmacy. When they’re sick, the primates appear to seek out and eat plants with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, according to new research.

Observers have long suspected that chimpanzees use plants to self-medicate. Now, a new paper published last week in the journal PLOS ONE offers more evidence in support of this idea.

Researchers followed two groups of wild chimpanzees through Uganda’s Budongo Forest for eight months. They recorded what the animals ate, as well as whether they were sick—which they determined by checking their feces for parasites, testing their urine for elevated levels of immune cells and looking for wounds.

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Shrinking Forests, Emerging Diseases

Dona Dora’s man is away from home a lot more these days. It didn’t used to be like that.

He leaves early, sometimes on foot, but increasingly on his bicycle, and heads into the forests surrounding Belém, the capital of Brazil’s Para province. He keeps his eyes open especially for five medicinal plants that are always in demand — sucuúba (Himatanthus sucuuba), copaíba (Copaifera spp.), andiroba (Carapa guianensis), barbatimão (Stryphnodendron spp.) and pãu d’arco (Tabebuia avellanedae).

Fifteen years earlier, he would have found all five within hours and been back for lunch, but times have changed. These days, medicinal forest plants in high demand are becoming harder to find as forests that have stood strong for millennia are cleared to make way for grazing pastures for millions of cattle owned by meat companies, or to grow soybeans to feed cattle and poultry.

Now, Dona Dora’s man can spend a whole day and not find more than a few plants. It might be late at night before he gets back home.

What is a Healthy Forest?

Healthy forests are beneficial for people and wildlife.

When forests are healthy, they produce enough food, water and shelter to support local wildlife, clean the air, reduce erosion into nearby streams and lakes, and are less susceptible to large-scale high-severity wildfires.

But what does a healthy forest look like?