Animal Rights

Unveiling the Sophisticated Cognitive Abilities of Our Primate Cousins

Main image to the post Unveiling the Sophisticated Cognitive Abilities of Our Primate Cousins

An orangutan named Boncel was translocated from a palm oil plantation to the main forest in Ketapang, West Kalimantan province, Indonesia on August 18, 2020. This was a collaborative effort between International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry (KLHK), and Rudiansyah.

Primates have been observed eating or rubbing plants on themselves, which scientists believe is a way to ward off disease or discomfort. However, a new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports on Thursday reports the first documented case of a wild animal applying medicinal plants to a wound.

Researchers in Indonesia observed a male orangutan named Rakus at the Gunung Leuser National Park in Aceh province with an open wound on his face. Three days later, they saw him chewing the leaves of a vine called Fibraurea tinctoria, which is known for its medicinal properties and has long been used in local traditional medicine.

The orangutan "began chewing the leaves without swallowing them and using his fingers to apply the plant juice from his mouth directly onto his facial wound," said the study by Indonesian and German scientists. When flies began to land on the site, Rakus "smeared the entire wound with the plant pulp until the red flesh was fully covered with the green leaf material."

The next day, Rakus was seen eating the vine's leaves again, and a week later his wound had closed up and healed without any sign of infection.

The study describes the behavior as the "first systematically documented case of active wound treatment with a plant species known to contain biologically active substances by a wild animal."

Researchers said it was impossible to be sure the behavior was intentional, but the fact that the juice and leaves were applied repeatedly and only to the wound suggests Rakus was trying to treat his injury.

They speculate the orangutan could have stumbled across the treatment, perhaps by first chewing the plant and then finding the juice offered pain relief when accidentally touching it to a wound.

Orangutans are known to learn skills from each other through observation, but the scientists said they had no record of similar behavior in 21 years and 28,000 observation hours in the area. Rakus, however, had moved to the region from elsewhere, raising the possibility that he learned the medical technique from a different community.

The observation adds to a growing body of evidence about the way primates use plants to keep healthy, including swallowing whole leaves that have anti-parasitic properties. Elsewhere in Indonesia, orangutans have been seen rubbing the chewed leaves of a different plant into their skin, possibly to harness its anti-inflammatory properties. And in 2022, scientists reported on chimpanzees in Gabon that were seen apparently applying insects to wounds.

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May 21, 2023 | 05:09