[monkeywire] Primates found popping prenatal drug

Josh Greenman joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Tue Jan 28 23:02:48 EST 2003


Primates found popping prenatal drug

by James Randerson

A Madagascan lemur has been revealed as the first animal known to 
self-medicate when pregnant. Female sifaka eat plants rich in poisonous 
tannins in the weeks before giving birth, researchers have discovered.

It is unclear why the sifaka does this. In other mammals, small doses 
of tannins kill parasites and stimulate milk production. And vets often 
use tannins to prevent miscarriage, raising the intriguing possibility 
that by eating the plants the sifaka is protecting its developing baby.

At first sight, a taste for tannins might seem odd whether you are 
pregnant or not. Plants use them as defensive chemicals to deter 
herbivores from munching their leaves, as the toxic tannins bind to 
proteins in the animals' guts.

"The sifakas are doing something that goes against the grain," says 
Michael Huffman, an expert in primate self-medication at Kyoto 
University in Japan and a member of the team. "But this probably means 
they have a good reason for doing it."

Fihamy and kily

His team studied Verreaux's sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) in Kirindy 
Forest, western Madagascar. Pregnant females ate more of the 
tannin-rich plants, called fihamy and kily, than other females or 
males, the authors will report in a future issue of the journal 
Primates. They also found that the sifakas that ate the plants had 
fewer failed pregnancies than a group of sifakas that did not.

Huffman accepts that he cannot be sure this is down to the tannins, as 
the sifakas that eat them might simply live in a less stressful 
habitat. Also, the researchers admit that the animals could be after 
other useful compounds in the plants.

Numerous primates, including chimps, baboons, black lemurs and 
capuchins, dip into the jungle pharmacy to combat parasites.

Some 39 species have been observed eating soil, which soaks up toxins 
in the gut and allows the animals to eat poisonous plants without 
getting sick. Another trick used by chimps is to swallow bristly leaves 
whole, which irritate their stomachs and induce diarrhoea, flushing out 
tapeworms and other gut parasites.

19:00 22 January 03

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