An orangutan manages to heal himself using liana leaves, a world first

An orangutan manages to heal himself using liana leaves, a world first
An orangutan manages to heal himself using liana leaves, a world first

Injured in the face, a Sumatran orangutan treated itself with a bandage made from a medicinal plant, in the first observation of such behavior in a great ape in the wild, reported Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Rakus, who is around 30 years old, was observed last June with a nasty wound on his face, exposing his flesh under his right eye along his nostrils. An injury received “probably during a fight with a nearby male”, according to Isabelle Laumer, primatologist at the German Max Planck Institute and first author of the study.

The animal is being tracked with some 130 conspecifics, all in the wild, in an area of ​​Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park.

Liana pulp

Three days after his injury, Rakus began chewing leaves of a vine, locally called Akar Kuning (Fibraurea tinctoria). But instead of ingesting it, he brought his fingers coated with the juice of the plant to his raw wound. Before covering it entirely with liana pulp. Five days later the wound was closed. Two weeks later, it left a barely visible scar.

The “remedy” used is not miraculous, it is part of the traditional pharmacopoeia in the region, from China to South-East Asia. This vine and others like it “are used as traditional remedies for different ailments, such as malaria,” according to the cognitive biologist, cited by Max Planck. Thanks to antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, among others.

First documented case

According to the study, this is the first “documented case of treatment of a wound with a plant species containing active biological substances by a wild animal.” If confirmed by other observations, it would complete a growing list of self-medicating behaviors by animals, particularly in primates.

In the 1960s, the famous primatologist Jane Goodall first observed that chimpanzees were ingesting leaves, the antiparasitic role of which was later revealed. A behavior observed since in bonobos and gorillas, with a selection by the animal of the plants ingested, the knowledge of which would be transmitted by females.

More recently, researchers observed Bornean orangutans, also in the wild, chewing the leaves of a medicinal plant before rubbing it only on their limbs. Coincidence? Dracenea cantleyi is typically used by indigenous populations to treat sore muscles and joint pain…

“Individual innovation”

The study believes that Rakus’ behavior, like that of its Borneo counterparts, was well intentional. With repeated and meticulous treatment of a very specific location, “which took a considerable amount of time”, according to Isabelle Laumer.

Co-author of the study, Dr Caroline Schuppli does not rule out “individual innovation”, of accidental origin.

Rakus could have unintentionally applied the juice of the plant to his wound, just after putting his fingers in his mouth. As the plant has an analgesic effect, the monkeys “can experience immediate relief, pushing them to repeat the operation several times,” according to this head of the Cognitive Development and Evolution Group at Max Planck.

This behavior has not been observed locally until now, the researcher does not exclude that it is present in the area of ​​origin of Rakus, the young male orangutans leaving their native region after puberty.

The fact that, like humans, primates can actively treat an injury in this way suggests that “our last common ancestor already used similar forms of treatment using ointments,” according to Dr. Schuppli.

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