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Is medicine the property of man? If the image of a chimpanzee in a white coat looks straight out of the Planet of the Apes, the fact remains that the great apes may have something to teach us about medicine.

chimpanzes pixabay
Sabrina Krief, primatologist at the internationally-renowned French Natural History Museum and veterinary scientist, has studied the feeding behaviour of these great apes for almost 20 years.

In the heart of the Congolese and Ugandan forests, sick chimpanzees work as pharmacists; they carefully select the plants they use to clean their wounds, regulate their digestion, and relieve their ailments. An individual infested with parasites moves away from the group to chew on Albizia bark, a tree that is not part of the usual diet. Shortly after, his faeces no longer show signs of the parasite. Chimpanzees are not content to heal themselves; they also prevent diseases. Sometimes they chew the very bitter leaves of Trichilia rubescens, despite the lack of nutritional value; the leaves contain molecules that can protect them from malaria.

Medicinal plants can be toxic when consumed in large quantities, and chimpanzees need to control the amount ingested according to their needs, their physical condition and the properties of the plant. In more than one third of the cases, the plants they select are similar to those used by humans in traditional medicine.

These examples illustrate the ability of chimpanzees to choose plants or parts of plants that help maintain or improve their health, and to avoid those that could worsen or degrade their condition. These conclusions were able to be formulated thanks to drawing on several different experts. Veterinary faecal analyzes coupled with behavioral observations provide valuable insights into the health status of animals. Combining these data with biomass data and botanical, biological and chemical analyses of the plants selected by the primates, the research team showed the ability of self-medication in apes.

What is the origin of this capacity? Is the knowledge acquired by transmission between generations or individuals of the same group? Is it the result of mimicry or individual trial-and-error learning? What is the innate part of this ability? In an attempt to answer these questions, Sabrina Krief and her team conducted comparative studies of several species of African great apes, both in the wild and in captivity. The consumption of medicinal plants was shown even in the case of orphaned chimpanzees raised by humans and released in the wild. This confirms the existence of individual trial-and-error but also the importance of social transmission in the choice of substances with biological activities in chimpanzees.

This ability of chimpanzees to adapt their diet to their state of health is a great discovery in terms of animal behaviour; it also proves to be a source of hope in terms of human health. To date, humans have only explored about 10% of plants for both their chemical and biological properties. The observation of the medicinal choices of chimpanzees makes it possible to discover plants with interesting active principles more quickly, which could be used to create new remedies. It is also important that these same men do not destroy the tropical forests, treasures of biodiversity and habitat of chimpanzees, now threatened with extinction in the near future!

Contacts :

Sabrina Krief (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, UMR Eco-anthropologie et ethnobiologie) : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Director of Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project :

The invasive bramble Rubus alceifolius is not called a "plant pest" for nothing. Originally from South-East Asia and accidentally introduced to Reunion in the 19th century, its development at the expense of local species is comparable to that of an infection spreading in an organism. In the absence of a predator, its progression knows no limit. Until now, the control methods put in place, mainly mechanical or chemical, have been expensive and inefficient ...

Finally, a little bee from Sumatra has proved to be the right remedy. Cibdela janthina, known as "the blue fly", has, after a whole battery of tests conducted by CIRAD since 1997, been declared able to restore the biodiversity of Reunion. This little hymenopter has the peculiarity of exclusively attacking the genus Rubus, to which the invasive bramble belongs. Following its introduction on the island in 2007, the results were not long coming; 700 hectares formerly colonized have now been returned to nature! The invasive bramble now only thrives above 1200m above sea level in areas the bluefly finds difficult to reach.

Tenthrede larves A.FRANCK-CIRAD 2  Tenthrede adulte A.FRANCK-CIRAD 1

Larvae of Cibdela janthina / Adult Cibdela janthina - © Antoine Franck – CIRAD

Biological control of an invasive population is similar to testing a new treatment. It must be studied, adapted and specific. Sometimes it's a success, as was the case for the invasive bramble with the blue fly. In other cases, the treatment acts in the desired way but has disastrous side effects.

Being able to restore biodiversity without playing the mad scientist is one of the ambitions of the project COREIDS, developed at CESAB and led by ecological researchers François Massol and Patrice David. They analysed the functioning of ecosystems in detail; what are the different species that contribute to their balance? How do they interact? What could be the effects of a disruptor as was the case with the invasive bramble? All of these elements will ultimately help to better understand and anticipate threats to biodiversity ... prevention is better than cure!


Contacts :

François Massol, EEP CNRS, Lille : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Lying on a mattress of moss, feet dangling over a 200 m high cliff, under a grey and windy sub-Antarctic sky, one can hear the footsteps of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) as it prepares to take off for its long journey. The wind catches the 3 m long wingspan and lifts the gigantic bird into the air propelling it onto another journey into the stormy Southern Ocean.


Its voyage will be remarkable, lasting many months and circumnavigating the globe. For us the Southern Ocean can be a forbidding, even dangerous, place but for the albatross the stormy conditions are a boon. Their streamlined bodies and their long, narrow wings give them the ability to ride the wind, extracting energy as it rushes over the waves to keep them airborne. So efficient is this that the birds can travel for thousands of kilometers without flapping their wings once!

Much of the bird’s life while on this long journey is a mystery to us. How does it navigate its way around the world? How does it find its food? 


This bird is carrying a small satellite linked data logger, which will help answer some of these important questions. The device provides very accurate locations several times a day. Combined with data from an army of other instrumented albatross, seals and penguins, the track from this bird will help researchers from the analyse and synthesis group « RAATD » identify what areas in the vast Southern Ocean are of particular importance to Southern Ocean predators, and guide us in designing new management strategies to protect the bird and its children. for many generations to come.



Contacts :

Yan Ropert Coudert, Director of Research - Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, CNRS UMR 7372. Station d'Ecologie de Chizé-La Rochelle : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

What if biodiversity allowed us to read our future? This is the observation of the team of Régis CEREGHINO, a researcher at the University of Toulouse who studies the bromeliads with a magnifying glass. Many of these flowering plants shelter small reservoirs of rainwater that contain algae, bacteria, fungi, invertebrate larvae and small frogs. True miniature versions of lakes, bromeliads, among other characteristics, respond quickly to change. While it takes tens or even hundreds of years for a large lake to respond to a mutation, bromeliads respond within a few weeks.


(c) Jean-François Carrias

AWe can manipulate their environment to simulate deforestation or climate change. From their response, researchers can draw ecological rules. When climate change is simulated where rains are scarce, bromeliads dry up. The first species to be affected are small predators that then release pressure on their prey. The consequences are many, including for man. In these stagnant systems are larvae of mosquitoes which, in the absence of predators, are likely to swarm and potentially transmit viruses. The moral of the story ? Biodiversity is a set of interacting species. The elimination of species in a context of global change can have cascading consequences and a (very) high cost to society.

Contact the researcher :
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