How chimps self-medicate might lead to human treatments, study finds

New research reveals sick or injured chimpanzees use medicinal plants with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties

Chimpanzees may be doing more than just “monkeying around” the jungle. Although they aren’t ready to open a clinic, new research showed the apes might be practicing their own kind of medicine.

University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography’s Elodie Freymann, Ph.D., and her team of researchers recently finished a study on the animals; their work was published in PLOS ONE on Thursday. According to the university, the team monitored 51 chimpanzees from two communities in Uganda’s Budongo Central Forest Reserve and collected plant extracts from various trees and herbs they believed the apes were using to self-medicate.

Sick or injured chimps were observed eating plants not normal for their diets, leading researchers to theorize the plants were being consumed for their medicinal properties.

“To study wild chimpanzee self-medication you have to act like a detective — gathering multidisciplinary evidence to piece together a case,” Freymann said in the university news release.

“After spending months in the field collecting behavioral clues that led us to specific plant species, it was thrilling to analyze the pharmacological results and discover that many of these plants exhibited high levels of bioactivity,” she said.

The study discovered that 88% of the plant extracts inhibited bacterial growth, while 33% had anti-inflammatory properties. From dead wood from a tree (Alstonia boonei) to leaves from a fern (Christella parasitica), the apes had turned their environment into what the lead author described as a forest pharmacy.

The discovery may help enhance medicine for humans as well, as many of the Budongo Central Forest Reserve plants could prove key finds for new drugs dedicated to fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria and chronic inflammatory diseases.

“Our study highlights the medicinal knowledge that can be gained from observing other species in the wild and underscores the urgent need to preserve these forest pharmacies for future generations,” Freymann said.