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World's heaviest flying birds use two plants to self-medicate themselves, study suggests

These plants were taken more often during mating season to counteract the effects of increased parasite exposure at that time.

World's heaviest flying birds use two plants to self-medicate themselves, study suggests
Image Source: Getty Images/ Bruno Maia

We often self-medicate when we feel sick and have our own homemade remedies to treat several conditions. Humans have been doing this for centuries but a recent study reveals that birds might engage in similar behaviors. The world's biggest flight bird may be the latest species to use plants as medicine. Researchers from Madrid, Spain, analyzed data from 619 great bustard droppings, reports CNN. They determined that the two plant species consumed by these birds more than other foods have "anti-parasitic effects." 

Luis M. Bautista-Sopelana, a scientist at Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, led this research. He said in a press release, "Here we show that great bustards prefer to eat plants with chemical compounds with antiparasitic effects." 



Great bustards are designated as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, and the Iberian peninsula is home to around 70% of the world's population, according to the release. The study titled "Bioactivity of plants eaten by wild birds against laboratory models of parasites and pathogens" was published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

According to research, great bustards ate a lot of corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and purple viper's bugloss (Echium plantagineum). Corn poppies have been used as a sedative and pain reliever in humans, however purple viper's bugloss can be hazardous if ingested. Researchers revealed that both plants' extracts contain antiparasitic effects, which they tested against three common parasites in birds. 



The researchers saw that these plants were taken more often during mating season, which they assume was to counteract the effects of increased parasite exposure at that time. According to the news release, great bustards are lek breeders, which means that males assemble at certain locations to put on performances for visiting females, who then pick a mate based on the spectacle.


Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid, and co-author said, "In theory, both sexes of great bustards might benefit from seeking out medicinal plants in the mating season when sexually transmitted diseases are common – while males that use plants with compounds active against diseases might appear more healthy, vigorous, and attractive to females." Moreover, due to their investment in secondary sexual traits and sexual presentation, males' immune systems are weakened during mating season. They consume these plants to gather energy to fight parasites in their environment. 



According to Paul Rose, a biologist and animal behavior lecturer at the University of Exeter in England, the findings suggest that great bustards can determine what is advantageous for them at a given moment and adjust their hunting activity appropriately. He said, "We normally associate self-medication in species like primates, so to see researchers studying endangered birds is brilliant."

Self-medicating tendencies are often seen in other species of the wild as well. According to PNAS, bees, lizards, elephants, and chimpanzees self-medicate for different purposes. These animals consume foods to improve their health, stave off sickness, eradicate parasites like flatworms, germs, and viruses, or simply help with digestion.

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