The largest bird in the world uses plants for self-medication, according to scientists

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — Resorting to taking medicine when you feel unwell is old news for humans, but new research shows that the world’s largest bird that can fly may be the latest animal to use plants as a form of medicine.

Researchers from Madrid, Spain, studied data on droppings from 619 Houbara bustards, and discovered that two types of plants included in their diet more than any other type of food had “anti-parasitic effects”.

Reported by Lewis M. Bautista Sobelana, a scientist at the Madrid National Museum of Natural Sciences and lead author, said in a press release Wednesday: “We show here that the Houbara houbara prefers to eat plants that contain chemical compounds with antiparasitic effects.”

The great bustard can be found in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, and this bird is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Animals, with about 70% of this bird living in the Iberian Peninsula, according to the statement.

The study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and Frontiers on Wednesday, revealed that the Houbara bustard ate an abundant amount of poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and Echium plantagineum. While humans use the poppy plant for its medicinal properties as a sedative and analgesic, the flower of the pregnant viper can be poisonous to them.

By analyzing the plant extracts, the researchers discovered that they have antiparasitic properties, specifically against three parasites common to birds: protozoon Trichomonas gallinae, nematode Meloidogyne javanica, and fungus Aspergillus niger.

Houbara bustard
Credit: Carlos Palacin

These two types of the plant are highly effective in killing or inhibiting the effects of protozoa and nematodes, according to the study. Rattlesnake flower showed moderate defense capabilities against fungi.

The researchers pointed out that the houbara bustard consumed these two types of plants, especially during the mating season, and they believe that they were limiting the effects of increased exposure to parasites during that period.

The press release stated that large houbara congregate with the aim of mating, which means that males congregate in specific locations to present themselves to visiting females, who then choose their mate accordingly.

“Theoretically, males and females of the Great Houbara during the mating season may benefit from foraging for medicinal plants when sexually transmitted diseases are common, in Whereas males who use plants containing potent disease-fighting compounds may appear healthier, stronger, and more attractive to females.”

Paul Rose, a zoologist and lecturer in animal behavior at the University of Exeter, England, who was not involved in the study, said the findings show that the great houbara is able to determine what benefits it at a given time and change its foraging behavior accordingly.

“We usually associate self-medication with species like primates, so it’s great to see researchers studying endangered birds,” Rose told CNN.

Earlier, chimpanzees had been seen picking up insects and dressing their wounds, as well as those of other animals, perhaps as a form of therapy, while dolphins rubbed against certain types of coral to protect their skin from infection.

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