“The study of how animals use plants for medicinal purposes is termed ‘zoopharmacognosy,’ but our observation of this phenomenon is, without question, an ancient practice. Who has not watched a dog swallow grass to induce vomiting when the animal has eaten something unhealthy it wishes to regurgitate?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
Mark is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with ~80 tribes to map and improve management and protection of ~100 million acres of ancestral rainforests. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books ever written about the rainforest. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can find my first interview with Mark at tim.blog/MarkPlotkin.
He is also the host of the Plants of the Gods podcast, through which you can learn about everything from hallucinogenic snuffs to the diverse formulations of curare (a plant mixture which relaxes the muscles of the body and leads to asphyxiation), and much, much more.
Today’s episode focuses on how animals use medicinal plants, and it has some wild stories featuring cows, penguins, pigs, frogs, and everything in between. It’s pulled from a chapter in Mark’s book Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets. I loved the chapter, and I asked Mark if he’d be willing to record it in audio to share it with you all. He agreed and here we are.
#537: The Hidden Knowledge of Animals — Mark Plotkin on Nature’s Medicine Cabinet
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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.
SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…
Want to hear my first conversation with Dr. Mark Plotkin? Lend your ears to our discussion about Richard Evans Schultes as a “trickster” in the shamanic tradition, how a shaman in the northeastern part of the Amazon cured Mark’s foot pain instantly when no one else could, the “holes” in Western medicine’s understanding, hallucinogenic frogs, the risks of ayahuasca and other Amazon-derived hallucinogens, and much more.
#469: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Dr. Mark Plotkin:
- Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest by Mark J. Plotkin | Amazon
- The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know by Mark J. Plotkin | Amazon
- Plants of the Gods — Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ayahuasca, Shamanic Knowledge, the Curse and Blessing of Coca, and More | The Tim Ferriss Show #508
- Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America | The Tim Ferriss Show #469
- Dr. Jane Goodall — The Legend, The Lessons, The Hope | The Tim Ferriss Show #421
- How the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis Explains Our Taste for Liquor | The Atlantic
- Aimoré (Botocudo) | Wikipedia
- Tupiniquim | Wikipedia
- Suriname, South America’s Hidden Treasure | The New York Times
- A Coprological Survey of Parasites of Wild Muriquis, Brachyteles Arachnoides, and Brown Howling Monkeys, Alouatta Fusca | Journal of the Helminthological Society of Washington
- What Monkeys Chew to Choose Their Children’s Sex | New Scientist
- Animal Heal Thyself | National Wildlife Federation
- What Is Applied Zoopharmacognosy? | Caroline Ingraham
- Complications in Interpreting the Chemical Defenses of Trees Against Tropical Arboreal Plant-Eating Vertebrates by D.H. Janzen | Smithsonian Institution
- Sweet Clover Poisoning | Iowa Beef Center
- The Clot Thickens | Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Letters
- Puffer Fish Sushi: How Fugu Kills You | Delishably
- Tetrodotoxin in Octopus | The Malacological Society of London
- All About the Poison Dart Frog: Weird and Wonderful Facts | Blue Planet Aquarium
- Dart Frogs in Palolo Valley | Oahu Realty
- Frogs’ Unusual Diet for Longer Life: A Medley of Toxins | The New York Times
- Aspilia spp. Leaves: A Puzzle in the Feeding Behavior of Wild Chimpanzees by R.W. Wrangham and T. Nishida | Primates
- Current Evidence for Self-Medication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Perspective by Michael A. Huffman | American Journal of Physical Anthropology
- Animal Self-Medication and Ethno-Medicine: Exploration and Exploitation of the Medicinal Properties of Plants by Michael A. Huffman | Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
- Curious George Classic Collection by H.A. Rey | Amazon
- Tongwe in Tanzania | Joshua Project
- The Self-Medicating Animal | The New York Times
- Arecoline | Wikipedia
- Love the Fig | The New Yorker
- Elephants Might Be Able to Self-Medicate to Induce Labor | Gizmodo
- Self-Medicative Behavior in the African Great Apes: An Evolutionary Perspective into the Origins of Human Traditional Medicine by Michael A. Huffman | BioScience
- Maroons | Minority Rights Group
- Shamans vs. Synthetics | The Scientist Magazine
- Self-Medication in Animals by Jacobus de Roode | Science
- The Origins and Ancient History of Wine | University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
- Birds Use Cigarette Butts for Chemical Warfare against Ticks | New Scientist
- Amaranth | Wikipedia
- CMC Biology Professor Says Bears Self-Medicate | Steamboat Pilot & Today
- Coatimundi (Coati): Species Profile | Spruce Pets
- Anointing Variation across Wild Capuchin Populations: A Review of Material Preferences, Bout Frequency and Anointing Sociality in Cebus and Sapajus | American Journal of Primatology
- Possible Insect Repellent Function of Green Leaves Placed on Nests by Hawks by Bradley A. McDonald et al. | Ripon College
- Hatching Synchrony, Green Branch Collecting, and Prey Use by Nesting Harpy Eagles (Harpia Harpyja) | The Wilson Journal of Ornithology
- Acosta, William. Bombardier Beetles and Fever Trees: A Close-up Look at Chemical Warfare and Signals in Animals and Plants. Addison-Wesley, 1997.
- Cowen, Ron. “Medicine on the Wild Side.” Science News, vol. 138, no. 18, 1990, p. 280., https://doi.org/10.2307/3974722.
- Engel, Cindy. Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them. Phoenix, 2003.
- Huffman, Michael A. “Animal Self-Medication and Ethno-Medicine: Exploration and Exploitation of the Medicinal Properties of Plants.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 62, no. 2, 2003, pp. 371–381., https://doi.org/10.1079/pns2003257.
- Huffman, Michael A. “Current Evidence for Self-Medication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 104, no. S25, 1997, pp. 171–200., https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/(SICI)1096-8644(1997)25+%3C171::AID-AJPA7%3E3.0.CO;2-7.
- Ingraham, Caroline. Animal Self-Medication: How Animals Heal Themselves Using Essential Oils, Herbs and Minerals. Ingraham Trading Ltd, 2019.
- Link, K. P. “The Discovery of Dicumarol and Its Sequels.” Circulation, vol. 19, no. 1, 1959, pp. 97–107., https://doi.org/10.1161/01.cir.19.1.97.
- Montgomery, Sy. Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.
- Plotkin, Mark J. Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets. Penguin Books, 2001.
- Strier, Karen B. Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press, 1999.
- Strier, Karen B. Primate Behavioral Ecology. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021.
Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.
- Why Dr. Jane Goodall — contrary to the policy of many other field biologists — names the chimps she studies, and why human beings might be later to the party of medicinal plant wisdom than some of the species with whom we share the wildernesses of the world.
- All the commercial medicines derived from the rainforests of Africa, Asia, and the Americas were initially extracted from plants observed in use by local tribespeople. Without indigenous people to guide us, how can we best determine which plants merit laboratory investigation? Look to the animals.
- The mariqui monkeys of Brazil seem to understand that eating certain plants will keep them free of parasites, and other plants act as birth control.
- Female howler monkeys in Central America appear to control whether their offspring will be male or female by plants they choose to eat around time of copulation.
- On zoopharmacognosy, barfing dogs, and how bleeding cattle led to the development of several blockbuster drugs.
- Some animals (like the pufferfish) ingest and store toxic compounds to use in their own defense. Some sushi lovers roll the dice anyway.
- Why do Ugandan chimpanzees seek out the Aspilia daisy? Did the local humans learn to use it for its medicinal properties by observing these chimps?
- Even if animals lead us to discover compounds too toxic for humans, they’re often a boon to the veterinarian’s medicine bag.
- Some plants harbor compounds potentially useful both for human and veterinary medicine: consider the noble fig.
- Pregnant elephants and Kenyan women know a thing or two about the borage tree.
- Do sick African crested porcupines really use a root called mulengelele to expel parasites? Are fish stunned by nekoe stems excreted by tapirs? Or are these just folk tales?
- Do we conclude that chimpanzees use medicinal plants more than other creatures because they’re what we’re most attracted to observing? If this is the case, what have we been missing?
- Have these animal-plant interactions only been observed in the tropics?
- How coatimundis and capuchins vex vermin.
- Even birds do it.
- Parting thoughts on what may come from further study, and a lament over what’s already been lost.
MORE MARK PLOTKIN QUOTES FROM THE EPISODE
“American aviators preparing to fly over the jungles of Indochina during the Second World War were taught that the best way to survive if shot down was to ‘eat what the monkeys eat.’ While the overarching value of this advice was probably psychological (some monkeys have chambered stomachs capable of digesting leaves that would poison and possibly kill a human), this recommendation may ironically prove more beneficial for medicinal purposes.”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
“If we can find new painkillers from frogs, new stimulants from porcupines, new antiparasitics from penguins, new antibiotics from chimps, and new contraceptives from wooly spider monkeys, what else might be out there, in the forest, on the prairie, or inside the coral reef, being used by local species and awaiting our discovery of its benefit to our own species?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
“When the Portuguese first arrived on the eastern shores of Brazil almost 500 years ago, the population of muriqui monkeys probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now their population has been reduced to a few hundred individuals, and more than 90 percent of their once magnificent rainforests has been destroyed. Who knows what we lost, either in terms of the actual chemicals, the species that produced them, or the primate knowledge of how to use them, not only for their benefit but, potentially, for ours as well?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
“Though pomegranate root bark is known to contain an alkaloid that kills tapeworms, neither the pig nor the pomegranate is native to Mexico; the Spanish conquistadors brought both to the New World. The pigs nonetheless selectively seek out and consume the roots of this tree as their ancestors once did in the Old World.”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
“The study of how animals use plants for medicinal purposes is termed ‘zoopharmacognosy, but our observation of this phenomenon is, without question, an ancient practice. Who has not watched a dog swallow grass to induce vomiting when the animal has eaten something unhealthy it wishes to regurgitate?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin
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