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Taking drugs when you’re feeling under the weather is old news for humans, but new research shows the world’s heaviest flying bird could be the newest animal to use plants as medicine.
Researchers from Madrid, Spain, examined data from 619 feces belonging to Great Bustards and discovered that the two plant species, which were eaten more than other foods in their diet, had “antiparasitic effects”.
“Here we show that great bustards preferentially eat plants with chemical compounds with antiparasitic activity,” said Luis M. Bautista-Sopelana, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid and lead author, in a press release on Wednesday.
Great bustards are found in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia and are listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. According to the press release, about 70% of the world’s population lives in the Iberian Peninsula.
The study, published Wednesday in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, shows that the great bustards ate an abundance of corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and purple vipers (Echium plantagineum). In humans, corn poppy has been used as a sedative and pain reliever for its medicinal properties, while purple viper bugloss can be poisonous if eaten.
By analyzing the plant extracts, the researchers discovered that both have antiparasitic properties, which they tested against three common parasites Birds: the protozoan Trichomonas gallinae, the nematode Meloidogyne javanica and the fungus Aspergillus niger.
According to the study, both plants were highly effective in killing or inhibiting the action of protozoa and nematodes. The bugloss of the purple viper showed a moderate repellency against the fungi.
The researchers found that these plants were particularly consumed during the mating season, which they believe should negate the effects of increased exposure to parasites during this time.
Great Bustards are Known as Lek breeders, which means males congregate at select locations to put on displays for the visiting females, who then choose a mate based on the show, the press release said.
“Theoretically, both sexes of great bustards could benefit from foraging for medicinal plants during mating season, when sexually transmitted diseases are common – while males using plants with disease-fighting compounds could appear healthier, stronger, and more attractive to females.” Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid and co-author of the study, said in the press release.
Paul Rose, a zoologist and lecturer in animal behavior at the University of Exeter in England, said the results show that great bustards are able to determine what is good for them at any given time and change their foraging behavior accordingly. He was not involved in the study.
“We usually associate self-medication with species like primates, so it’s great to see researchers studying endangered birds,” Rose told CNN.
Chimpanzees have been observed capturing insects and applying them to their own wounds or the wounds of others, possibly as a form of medicine, while dolphins rubbed certain types of coral to protect their skin from infection.