Orangutans Use Healing Plants

Scientists observe a wild orangutan using plant leaves to heal a wound.

May 12, 2024


Wildlife, Study
Orangutans Use Healing Plants | Scientists observe a wild orangutan using plant leaves to heal a wound.

People have been using medicinal plants for healing since ancient times. The knowledge of which plants and herbs to use has been passed from generation to generation. But this knowledge may not be limited to humans. Now an orangutan has demonstrated that primates also share this healing behavior.

Scientists in Indonesia observed – for the first time – an orangutan treating a wound on his face, according to CNN. Rakus, a 32-year-old male Sumatran orangutan treated his wound by chewing the leaves of a Akar Kunin plant and covering his wound with a poultice made from the softened leaves. Using the leaves of this plant is the traditional way that people have treated illnesses like malaria and dysentery.

This remarkable sighting occurred in June 2022 in the Suaq Balimbing research area in Gunung Leuser National Park, a protected rain forest area, and the remarkable finding was published in the journal Scientific Reports.  

A new discovery
While other primates have been known to chew or rub themselves with medicinal plants, scientists have never seen it used on wounds.  “This case represents the first known case of active wound treatment in a wild animal with a medical plant,”  biologist Isabelle Laumer, the first author of the study, told NPR.

Laumer and researcher Caroline Schuppli were leading a team of cognitive and evolutionary biologists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and Universitas Nasional in Indonesia when they spotted Rakus with a new wound, reported NPR.

Three days later, the researchers saw him treating the wound with the Akar Kunin leaves, a plant that is rarely eaten by the orangutan population in the area. The act was intentional and Rakus spent over 13 minutes performing it and repeated the procedure the next day. Within five days, the wound was healed.

A traveling man
While this behavior may have emerged from the one specific individual because it  hasn’t been part of the Suaq orangutan population, theorized Schuppli in a news release from the institute. She believes that it is a real possibility since Rakus was not originally from the area.

“Orangutan males disperse from their natal area during or after puberty over long distances to either establish a new home range in another area or are moving between other’s home ranges,” said Schuppli. “Therefore, it is possible that the behavior is shown by more individuals in his natal population outside the Suaq research area.”

Will other orangutans learn this behavior too? It is a possibility, reports NPR, because these great apes have demonstrated social behavior.

Since this medicinal use of plants to treat wounds has been seen in people as well as the great apes in Asia and Africa, “it is possible that there exists a common underlying mechanism for the recognition and application of substances with medical or functional properties to wounds and that our last common ancestor already showed similar forms of ointment behavior,” Schuppli said in the news release. It seems that some behaviors may not be as unique to humans as previously believed.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.