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.
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 ...
"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.
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."
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).
"MAW BEAWKS STWUCK TOGEVWER." "WHAT?!"
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.
Monkeys and Elephants Practice Family Planning
If there's one single thing that separates humans from animals, it's that we actually put some thought into who we'll have sex with. Animals don't plan for a baby; they just hump the nearest female they see and let natural selection take care of the rest. Hell, dogs will hump your leg if they're in the mood. They don't care. Put it in front of them, they'll hump it.
Of course they will. They're animals. Enjoying sex without getting pregnant is advanced stuff -- most human teenagers can't manage it, let alone monkeys.
The Medicine: Chemicals for Birth Control and Induced Labor
The woolly spider monkeys of Brazil have it figured out.
They've also cornered the limb market.
According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, anthropologists have found that the monkey females eat certain types of plants that increase their estrogen levels, thereby decreasing their fertility rates. Interestingly, they also found that others were eating plants that very likely raised the probability of getting pregnant. So those monkeys not only take the pill -- they come off of it and replace it with fertility treatments when necessary. Whoa.
Hope they have adoption centers, too, because awwwww.
African elephants, meanwhile, have figured out ways to induce labor. A pregnant elephant was once seen walking 17 miles to get to a certain tree, uprooting it and eating it whole. A few days later, a healthy calf was born. It hardly seems like coincidence -- trees of this very family, Boraginaceae, are also used by local Kenyan people to induce labor.
And while eating a whole tree might seem somewhat excessive, this is not uncommon behavior in elephants, as seen in Dresden Zoo, Munich:
Yes, that is a whole Christmas tree. Yes, he ate five of the damn things.
Birds Use Anti-Lice Shampoo
Many of the parents among our readers probably know of the nasty little souvenirs their kids can sometimes bring home from kindergarten or elementary school, and we're not talking about dead slugs, Pokemon cards or Justin Bieber merchandise. We're talking about this:
Oh, hey, it doesn't look as freaky up close and oh no our brains have died.
Animals have the same problem with lice and even worse kinds of bugs. And it can be a killer for birds, since their whole bodies are covered in large, dense feathers that make a wonderful breeding ground. The same feathers the bird really needs in order to keep functioning as a bird.
"I told you sons a' bitches to check your bags!"
But what's a creature with a brain the size of a pea gonna do about it?
The Solution: Smoke and Acid
Maybe you've heard about the superstition that a raven or crow on the roof brings bad luck. Or maybe you saw Stephen King's made-for-TV movie The Stand and figured it out yourself. As we have pointed out previously, those birds are freakishly intelligent, and people of olden times theorized that the black bird on the straw-thatched roof is in fact plotting to set it on fire.
This is still true, only now they'd strip the lead off first.
Well, not quite that: The smoke that comes up from home roofs can fumigate lice or other nasty parasites right out of a bird's plumage. In modern times, people have witnessed crows air out their wings over a cigarette.
Oh, and just in case man is not so helpful as to provide burning stuff for their hygienic needs, there is even a well-documented case of a tame rook that learned how to strike matches for exactly that purpose. There are no reports of what other things "Corbie" managed to light up this way, but we're certain that many orphans died.
Welcome to Marlboro CAWntry.
In a more unusual practice, birds have been observed engaging in a hardcore delousing method known as "anting." In active anting, birds pick up ants -- particularly ones that can spray formic acid -- and rub them along their flight feathers to kill any hangers-on. Passive anting is, well, a little more masochistic. Basically the birds will just find an anthill, drape themselves over it and enjoy the sensation of an ant swarm crawling over their wings, eating every louse they see.
"Gee, this is a great idea and I should try it right now!" -- No one.
Caterpillars Poison Themselves to Save Themselves
Caterpillars, being essentially little more than sentient pipe cleaners, could not be expected to stand much of a chance against, well, anything. They're pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, basically brainless, shuffling bits of meat for smarter animals to much on.
They're such easy targets that somewhere along the line they even became the prison bitch to the tachina fly, which has taken to laying their eggs inside the caterpillars so their little fly babies can have a tasty meal when they eventually hatch. So it's not like with most parasites, where the bugs just kind of camp out in the guts of their host, making them miserable and stealing their nutrients. These larva will eat that caterpillar from the inside out -- eventually killing it altogether.
And it couldn't be perpetrated by a more adorable creature.
And yet, there is one thing that caterpillars are very, very good at: eating. And they turned it into a weapon.
The Medicine: Plant Insecticides
Experiments have shown that infected woolly bear caterpillars will seek out and eat plants containing a specific alkaloid that kills their unwelcome subtenants. And if that already seems like way more thinking than a caterpillar should be capable of, it turns out they also carefully manage the dose. Being insects themselves, the chemicals also poison them -- so they have to take just enough to kill the bugs living inside them without killing themselves. All without the benefit of one of those little cough syrup measuring cups to make sure they don't OD.
Between parasites and poison, this little thing is more alive than any of us, man.
Wait, there's more. If you're thinking that caterpillars just eat these plants all the time, you're wrong -- eating the plants when healthy can kill them. The benefit comes when the parasites are present to take the brunt of the poison. In other words, the insects have to not only know that they are sick, but avoid the medicine if they aren't.
Raise your hand if you have at least one friend who can't manage that level of self-control around medication.
At least when this guy is tripping out he can survive jumping off a fifth-story balcony.
For more information for you Jack Hanna wannabes, check out 6 Adorable Cat Behaviors With Shockingly Evil Explanations and 6 Animals That Just Don't Give A F#@k.