Wild orangutan used medicinal plant to treat wound, scientists say

An orangutan appeared to treat a wound with a medicine extracted from a tropical plant, the latest example of how some animals try to alleviate their own ailments with remedies found in nature, scientists reported.

Scientists watched Rakus pluck and chew leaves from a medicinal plant used by people throughout Southeast Asia to treat pain and inflammation.

The adult male orangutan then used his fingers to apply the plant’s juices to a wound on his right cheek. He then pressed the chewed plant to cover the open wound as if it were a makeshift bandage, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

This photo provided by the Suaq Foundation shows a facial wound on Rakus, a wild male Sumatran orangutan. (AP)

Previous research has documented several species of great apes seeking medicine in the forests to heal themselves, but scientists had yet to see an animal treat itself in this way.

“This is the first time we observed a wild animal applying a very potent medicinal plant directly to a wound,” said co-author Isabelle Laumer, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany.

The orangutan’s intriguing behavior was recorded in 2022 by Ulil Azhari, co-author and field researcher at the Suaq Project in Medan, Indonesia.

The photographs show that the animal’s wound closed after a month without any problems.

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Scientists have been observing orangutans in Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park since 1994, but they had not seen this behavior before.

“It’s a single observation,” said Emory University biologist Jacobus de Roode, who was not involved in the study.

“But we often learn new behaviors starting with a single observation.”

“It is very likely that this is self-medication,” de Roode said, adding that the orangutan applied the plant only to the wound and to no other part of the body.

Rakus may have learned the technique from other orangutans who live outside the park and away from the daily scrutiny of scientists, said Max Planck co-author Caroline Schuppli.

Rakus, a wild male Sumatran orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park. (AP)

Rakus was born and lived as a young man outside the study area. Researchers believe the orangutan was injured in a fight with another animal. It is not known if Rakus previously treated other injuries.

Scientists have previously recorded that other primates used plants to treat themselves.

Bornean orangutans rubbed themselves with juices from a medicinal plant, possibly to reduce body pain or ward off parasites.

Chimpanzees have been observed in multiple locations chewing bitter-tasting plant shoots to soothe their stomachs.

Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos swallow certain rough leaves whole to get rid of stomach parasites.

“If this behavior exists in some of our closest living relatives, what might it tell us about how medicine first evolved?” said Tara Stoinski, president and chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, who was not involved in the study.