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Orangutan Makes History Using Plant Medicine to Heal

Rakus the orangutan just proved to researchers that animals are brilliant and know how to harness the healing properties of plants.

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When a wild orangutan in Indonesia sustained a painful cheek wound, his actions amazed researchers. He chewed on leaves known for their pain-relieving and healing properties, applied the juice to the wound, and then used the leaves as a poultice to cover it. The plant, according to researchers, is Akar Kuning from the Liana family—a type of vine that the orangutan population in Suaq rarely eats. But the actions of this orangutan became increasingly deliberate and focused, scientists say.

“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 a paper about the revelation, told NPR.

She expressed being “very excited” about the orangutan’s apparent ingenuity, which she observed at the Suaq Balimbing research site in Gunung Leuser National Park, northwest Sumatra. This protected rainforest is home to around 150 orangutans.

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The orangutan, named Rakus, may have sustained the large wound during a fight with a rival male, according to Laumer. While treating his wound, he spent 13 minutes consuming the plant before chewing the leaves for seven minutes without swallowing. He then applied the plant’s juices to his wound. When flies started landing on the wound, Rakus covered it completely with the leaf material and then resumed eating the plant.

Within a span of five days, the wound had sealed shut. Approximately one month after the injury is thought to have been incurred, the biologists noted in their paper, published in Scientific Reports, that “the wound seemed to have completely healed, leaving only a faint scar.” The injury also healed with no infection, according to researchers.

If Rakus indeed served as his own caregiver, he appeared diligent about it. The day after he first used the leaves, the orangutan sought out the plant once more and consumed additional leaves. He also engaged in much more rest than usual, a behavior researchers believe probably enhanced his body’s healing process.

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So, what’s the deal with this plant? The plant possesses analgesic, antipyretic, and diuretic properties. In traditional medicine practiced in the region, it is utilized to treat various ailments, including dysentery, diabetes, and malaria. Chemical analysis of the plant has revealed the presence of furanoditerpenoids and protoberberine alkaloids, both known for their antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant, and other biological properties relevant to wound healing, as stated in the researchers’ paper.

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“It also contains jatrorrhizine (antidiabetic, antimicrobial, antiprotozoal, anticancer, and hypolipidemic properties… and palmatine (anticancer, antioxidation, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral properties,” the paper said.

Isabella Laumer and Caroline Schuppli led a team of cognitive and evolutionary biologists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and Universitas Nasional in Indonesia.

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