Zoopharmacognosy: Clues to Potential New Medicines from Animal Behaviour
Zoopharmacognosy is concerned with studies of animal behaviour in which animals are observed to ingest
certain plants that are not normally part of their diet but which seem to confer some kind of health benefit
of either a preventative or curative nature. The field is a relatively new one, the term having been coined
1 in the early 1990s. Whilst evidence is sometimes circumstantial, there is a growing body of
literature to support the idea that self-medication by animals is undertaken; and that potential therapeutic
benefits to the animals can be linked to the presence of biologically active compounds in the plants
ingested.2-5 For example, the consumption of particular leaves by wild chimpanzees seems to be
beneficial in reducing nematode infections.6
One particular aspect of such studies that has attracted attention is the possibility that they may provide
clues to potential new substances with pharmacological activities that could be used in human medicine.
There is, of course, a long tradition in human medicine of using natural products (compounds known as
‘secondary metabolites’) from plant sources - about a third of all currently used pharmaceutical
compounds have their origins in such compounds.
IOCD's Zoopharmacognosy Project
One of the outstanding young researchers in the field is Prof. Sabrina Krief, who works at the
Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris. Trained in veterinary medicine, Prof. Krief's doctoral
thesis was on chemical and biological studies of secondary metabolites in plants used by chimpanzees in
Uganda.7 Subsequently, she has published numerous studies on self-medication in non-human
primates, including the identification of substances with antibacterial, anti-malarial and/or antileishmania
Prof. Sabrina Krief is currently collaborating with IOCD in a Zoopharmacognosy Project, which aims to
highlight the value of studies of self-medication in animals as a valuable source of information on plants
with potential medicinal active ingredients for use in human beings.