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A wild orangutan used a medicinal plant to treat a wound, scientists say

WASHINGTON— An orangutan appeared to treat a wound with medicine made from a tropical plant, the latest example of how some animals are trying to soothe their own illnesses with remedies found in the wild, scientists reported Thursday.

Scientists observed rakus plucking and chewing leaves of a medicinal plant used by people across Southeast Asia to treat pain and inflammation. The adult male orangutan then applied the plant juices with his fingers to an injury on his right cheek. He then pressed the chewed plant onto the open wound like a makeshift bandage, according to a new study in Scientific Reports.

Previous research has documented several species of great apes searching forests for medicine to heal themselves, but scientists had not previously seen any animal self-medicating in this way.

“This is the first time we have observed a wild animal applying a quite effective medicinal plant directly to a wound,” said co-author Isabelle Laumer, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology in Konstanz, Germany.

The orangutan’s fascinating behavior was recorded in 2022 by Ulil Azhari, a co-author and field researcher at the Suaq Project in Medan, Indonesia. Photos show that the animal’s wound closed easily within a month.

Scientists have been monitoring orangutans in Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park since 1994, but had never observed this behavior before.

“It’s a single observation,” said Emory University biologist Jacobus de Roode, who was not involved in the study. “But we often learn new behaviors by starting with a single observation.”

“It’s very likely self-medication,” de Roode said, adding that the orangutan only applied the plant to the wound and not to other parts of the body.

It’s possible that Rakus learned the technique from other orangutans who lived outside the park and away from daily observation by scientists, said co-author Caroline Schuppli of Max Planck.

Rakus was born and lived outside the study area as an adolescent. Researchers believe the orangutan was injured in a fight with another animal. It is unknown if Rakus has previously treated other injuries.

Scientists have previously observed that other primates use plants to heal themselves.

Borneo orangutans rubbed themselves with the juice of a medicinal plant, possibly to relieve body pain or drive away parasites.

In several locations, chimpanzees have been observed chewing on the shoots of bitter-tasting plants to calm their stomachs. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos swallow certain rough leaves whole to get rid of stomach parasites.

“If this behavior occurs in some of our closest living relatives, what might that tell us about the emergence of medicine?” said Tara Stoinski, president and chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, who had no role in the study.

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