6 Surprisingly Advanced Ways Animals Use Medicine

We humans think we're so smart. We invented penicillin. We used to go to the moon. Sure, animals are good for a laugh or two, but if one of them gets sick, who's going to take care of it? Either it's some sympathetic human or nobody. It's not like animals have doctors and medicine.

Well ... that's half right.

#6. Chimps Use Parasite Flushers


We hate to be the ones to bring this up, but you know you could have parasitic worms writhing inside you right now, right? Hopefully you washed your hands after you went to the bathroom and cooked your food thoroughly and didn't drink stagnant puddle water. But every now and then, those suckers will slip through -- right into your insides.

Put down whatever you were eating -- it's Cracked Science Time(TM)!

Which leads you to wonder how apes and chimps deal with them -- it's not like there's a Purell plant out there, and it's pretty rare that you see jungle animals in an apron and flip-flops grilling up their steaks for safety's sake (although ... can you imagine?). And as brilliant as chimpanzees are, it's not like they've got culinary schools set up to tackle the dangers of invisible-to-the-naked-eye parasites. Do they?

The Medicine: Trichome Plants

It turns out those dumb chimps pretty much completely figured out parasites on their own.

You see, chimpanzees have a very impressive range of facial expressions ...

Matthew Hoelscher
"Angry and nauseous commenter."

... so when biologists saw them eating the bitter stem of a certain plant and making absolutely disgusted though hilarious faces, it was clear that they were not doing it because they liked the flavor.

In other words, the general assumption of "If it tastes bad, it must be good for you" wound up applying to chimps, even though you'd think that, as animals, they wouldn't know anything beyond "This is gross, spit it out." And yet there they were, forcing themselves to eat a plant called Vernonia amygdalina like it was medicine they were choking down.


Seriously, they'd even fold the leaves up and swallow them whole to avoid chewing them, like a 5-year-old who has been browbeaten into clearing his plate of broccoli. And also like the 5-year-olds swallowing greenery whole, the stuff would leave the body pretty in much the same form it came in. In the case of the chimpanzees, though, the pooped-out leaves were covered in intestinal worms.

That didn't look like a vegetable and hookworm burrito in any way at all.

Scientists found that those plants all had one specific trait in common: They were covered with trichomes -- tiny, sharp hooks that speared the undesired subtenants and gave them a slide-ride all the way down the intestine and out. Good riddance!

So, how did the chimpanzees learn to use leaves like that? Well, just like '80s teens who picked up drug habits in the home, they learned it from their parents, specifically their mothers. But then we still have to give credit to the first chimp who put two and two together ("Hey, this leaf is covered in my butt worms, let's try that again"). Imagine if you found yourself battling poop bugs in the jungle. Would you know to how to find the one plant that would clean your system out? Exactly. Chimps 1, stranded hypothetical humans who contracted intestinal worms 0.

#5. Deer Use Antiseptics

OK, you think, but those were chimps. Primates are pretty smart, they can use tools and whatnot. It's not all that weird that they'd figure out that a certain leaf can cure their worm problem.

Well, how about, say, deer? Their survival is due to being super fast and extremely cautious. But you wouldn't call them smart. They don't solve puzzles or even build shelters. So, you'd logically assume that deer, lacking opposable thumbs, stitchery skills and accredited medical schools, would pretty well be hosed in the event of a serious injury.

Like, say, being shot by a hunter in front of your adorable fawn.

The Medicine: Antiseptic Treatments

You'd be wrong. In Europe, hunters that pursued wounded animals found that injured deer would often find some moss and mash their wound up against it or roll around in spots where soft clay could be found. Or, they would wade out into moor water and peat. After seeing this enough times, it didn't take a genius to deduce that they had a reason for it.

A sexy halftime show.

As for cramming moss into their wounds, it's no coincidence that traditional human medicine has often used dried moss and peat as wound dressings for all of recorded history. In fact, during World War I, the Germans used sphagnum moss to make bandages that proved vastly superior to the cotton pads available at that time.

After the advent of antibiotic powder, the moss pads fell out of fashion. But as more types of bacteria grow resistant to conventional antibiotics, medical scientists have come back full circle to sphagnum, proving that it indeed has antiseptic properties. And apparently the deer have known this all along.

"I'm going to celebrate by running out in front of your car."

#4. Parrots Have a Hangover Cure

You'd think that life as an herbivore would be pretty simple -- plants can't run away or fight back, so all you have to do is wander around and find them. But that's not true -- the wrong plant, or the wrong part of the right plant, will poison the shit out of you. Plants are like any other living thing: They want to keep living, and they are willing to kill your ass if you threaten them.

"Oh yeah, you're totally gonna regret eating 15 of me tomorrow morning."

So if you're, say, a macaw parrot, you like to use your gargantuan beak to crack open the seeds of fruit to get at the calorie-rich, oily goodness inside. But plants don't like that (they want their seeds to get planted and to grow, not to wind up mashed to bits in the belly of some flamboyant bird), and so, thanks to evolution, those seeds are laced with toxic alkaloids.

Advantage: plants. The stuff builds up in the macaws' system and makes them sick, and it's not like the stupid birds can go to the doctor and get an antidote.

The Medicine: Detoxifying Clay

Take a tour along the Amazon River and you'll see hundreds of brightly colored macaws feeding on clay along the river banks (bring earplugs -- those birds are also incredibly loud).


Those sites are usually referred to as parrot licks, because for a long time, people thought the birds ingested minerals that way, much like how deer and sheep use salt licks. Surprisingly, a closer look at the kind of earth ingested showed that it had little to no nutritional benefit to the birds, and yet they were oddly specific in consuming just that special kind of clay. Because they're birds, and they're stupid. Right?

"I don't taste great. I'll try the other foot."

The answer, of course, is that the clay contains elements that neutralize plant toxins they've ingested.

Experiments showed that parrots that had consumed clay carried about 60 percent fewer toxic alkaloids in their bloodstreams than their earth-deprived brethren, which means that the plants will have to come up with another method of keeping the parrots away from their family jewels. We suggest flamethrowers.

A beakful of clay keeps the poison at bay.

Think of the chain of events that would lead humans to come up with the same solution after overindulging. Actually, don't. We've already seen The Hangover II.

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