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Talk to the animals
06-12-2006
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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Recently, while traveling from Toronto to Washington, I stumbled across an article in an in-flight magazine that was actually interesting and useful. It spoke about a relatively nascent field of medicine about which I knew almost nothing: zoopharmacognosy (take that, Scrabble champ). Simply put, this is the study of natural products that wild animals use to self-medicate (zoo=animal; pharmaco=drug; gnosy=knowledge).
 
Having been a dog person for most of my life, I was well aware of Fido's penchant for eating the back lawn and then finding an incredibly awkward or well hidden place in the house to solve his gastric distress. It never occurred to me, however, to think of grass as a natural emetic. (And given what else you'd likely find on the lawn, I wouldn't recommend dog owners go out and test this theory.)
 
Being the naturally inquisitive type, I promptly Google-d the term when I got home and was surprised to find a relative dearth of significant information on the topic. With the exception of a couple of articles in popular science magazines and a book by Cindy Engels entitled Wild Health (Houghton-Mifflin; ISBN 0618071784), there was little of substance that wasn't simply a rehashing of the same story about the same apes eating the same leaves.
 
Aside from this, there was a lot of hand-wavy New Age dreck about returning to nature and sucking back handfuls of clay (geophagy). And I have to admit that the free excerpt of Engels' book that I read online struck me as a little too pie-in-the-sky for my tastes and didn't appear to offer much in the way of scientific analysis. To be fair, however, I only read the first chapter.
 
A trip to the National Library of Medicine's Entrez-PubMed, however, proved even more depressing, as a search for "zoopharmacognosy" as any word in the text resulted in three review papers about plant-based medicines. The coexisting words "animal" and "self-medication" fared little better. Which forced me to ask the question: Had I just been sucked in to a story that sounded really cool but had little scientific substance?
 
It's happened before. Don't even ask me about cryptozoology. I was young and impressionable. It was the 70s and I was doing some heavy Pop-Rocks back then. Leonard Nimoy and his "In Search Of" crew were gods.
 
But this one seemed to have more substance. Zoopharmacognosy fit so well with my current understanding of natural products and medicinal chemistry. So, my dear readers, I am asking for your help. If you know of any good references or researchers actually studying zoopharmacognosy, I'd appreciate the heads up.
 
In the meantime, keep watching the skies.

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