If you’re an orthodontist looking for a new challenge, I recommend you look no further than the dental disaster that is the babirusa. Beauticians, I extend the same chance to prove your skills. Whether it’s a form of wild pig, which it’s currently classified as, or some sort of pig-deer, as its Malaysian name suggests, or is actually a distant relative of the hippopotamus, as some taxonomists believe, one thing we know about the babirusa: it is all ugly. Sporting a pair of fearsome lower tusks for stabbing opponents, and a pair of upward-growing canines that grow through the skin and curve all the way to the eyes, which aid in grappling and butting, the male babirusa’s unique headgear makes it extremely attractive to lady babirusas, and has the opposite effect on everyone else.

The number one cause of death for babirusas is sneezing.

Do I have something on my forehead?

The footlong upper tusks are actually quite brittle and exist mainly for show, as they seem correlated with age and testosterone levels. They also provide a handy way to weed out the older babirusas who have too much testosterone.

"Epic Fail"

You would not believe this migraine I'm having.

But it’s not the babirusa’s teeth that make it the subject of today’s post, but its diet. Like a wild boar, the babirusa is an omnivore that is primarily a vegetarian and a frugivore. And like any pig, it enjoys wallowing in mud, as a healthy clay facial keeps it cool in the jungles of Sulawesi, and helps with parasites to boot. (As for the complexion, it does little in this case.) But the babirusa also eats the clay. The act of eating earth is called geophagy, and it’s practiced by many animals, including apes, birds, and elephants. And why would you want to eat dirt?

Overtones of oak and cherry, with a distinctly loamy mouthfeel.

Um, because it's effing delicious?

Zoopharmacognosy. “Zoo” = Animal, “Pharma” = Drug, “Gnosy” = To Know. Zoopharmacognosy is the process of animal self-medication, by which an animal knows to use a certain plant or soil to cure its ailments. In the babirusa’s case, the clay it eats provides it with essential minerals it doesn’t get in its diet, particularly sodium. But it also neutralizes the pH in its three stomachs: by consuming an alkaline soil, the babirusa counteracts the acids and toxins of some of the leaves it eats, allowing it to extend its diet to plants it couldn’t otherwise digest. The babirusa uses clay — and only certain clay at that — the way we use multivitamins and antacid tablets. The wisdom to know to eat one particular clay over another to ease its stomach pains is an inheritance of millenia upon millenia of culture, instinct, and ecological street smarts.

A common and valid argument for biodiversity and conservation is that the wilderness is our pharmacy. Medicines that cure cancer may exist among the undiscovered orchids of the tropical canopy, they say, if only we can find it. And how could we find these elusive chemical compounds on which modern medicine may soon depend? By watching the animals, of course. It’s what we’ve done all along.

Panax pseudoginseng, a plant used to treat bleeding even through the Vietnam War, was supposedly discovered by a Chinese man who beat a snake within an inch of its life, and then watched it heal its wounds by eating the weed’s leaves. Gorillas use ginger for upset stomachs, just as we do. And if you’ve ever warded off mosquitoes with a citronella-based insect repellant, you can thank a monkey. Over a dozen species of monkey rub plants from the Citrus family into their fur to discourage mosquitoes and fleas, as well as other plants with antiseptic, anti-microbial properties to heal stings and bites. Knowledge of these plants is shared among families and troupes, passed down from old to young, the way medicine men and curanderas have passed down their understanding of herbs to daughters and apprentices.

The smell of my Deep Woods OFF! makes Rachel Carson cry.

Citronella may work for monkeys, but you can't get real mosquito protection without killing a few bald eagles.

In fact, removal of parasites is one of the primary uses of natural medicine by animals. Starlings will line their nests with wild carrot leaves to prevent mites, and packrats often place bay leaves at the entrance of their middens to deter fleas. In India, house sparrows will line their nests around hatching time with a tree leaf rich in quinine, which not only acts as an insecticide, but treats the symptoms of malaria.

Often, an animal’s best way to repel insects is to use insects themselves. Venezuelan capuchins will rub themselves with centipedes during the rainy season; the centipedes exude a benzoquinone toxin that repels bugs. And most songbirds engage in behavior called “anting,” in which they either rub their feathers with crushed ants, or sit on an anthill and let the ants swarm over them. They are picky about which ants, however: only ants that produce formic acid, the primary ingredient in ant venom, will serve their purpose. It happens that formic acid is also great for killing and repelling feather mites, so much so that it’s worth a few ant stings to get it.

"Why are we biting his tail, again?"

Hell yes, it hurts. But not more so than a Brazilian wax.

Slightly more difficult to avoid are internal parasites, but animals sometimes prescribe the right medicine for those, too. In 1987, Michael Huffman, one of the first scientists to study zoopharmacognosy, observed a female chimpanzee cure herself of intestinal parasites by ingesting the pith of a Vernonia fruit. By isolating the phenolic compounds in the pith, which were entirely new to biochemistry, he discovered that they contained anti-microbial, anti-parasitic, and anti-tumor properties. Huffman also witnessed chimps cure themselves of worms by eating whole the woolly leaves of a certain plant called Aspilia, which, in addition to its anti-fungal, -parasitic, -bacterial, and -viral compounds, also catch intestinal worms like patches of velcro and take them on a magic carpet ride out of the digestive tract.

And two minutes of organ and guitar solos that ultimately build back to the chorus just in time to fade out.

Cue up the Steppenwolf

Reproductive control is another powerful incentive to self-medicate. Pregnant African elephants will walk for miles to consume the leaves from a particular tree in the Borage family which helps induce labor; native Africans learned by their example, and now use it for the same purpose. Horny Goat Weed, used as an aphrodisiac by horny goats, is now used as an aphrodisiac by horny men. And the muriqui monkeys of Brazil will consume a plant with a compound that mimics estrogen during non-mating seasons, potentially to decrease the risk of pregnancy, and when the season is right, will consume another plant whose compounds mimic progesterone in order to increase fertility.

"Two years I carry you around, and for what? So you can get schmutz on your trunk?"

The gestation period of the African elephant is two years. Damn right they know how to induce labor.

These are just a few of the many ways in which animals use the pharmacopeia of nature, without the need for doctors or scientists to prescribe corporate drugs. The most interesting part of zoopharmacognosy, for me, is the “gnosy;” how do they know which plants to eat and when? Monkeys may pass their pharmaceutical knowledge down as part of a cultural tradition, but what about bears and coati, which also make their own insect repellent but are generally antisocial animals? How do birds, which do not teach their young which reeds or berries are antimicrobial, know to eat this or line their nests with that?

There’s not much we know for sure, and that means it’s irresponsible conjecture time. I’d wager that the knowledge of local medicine in animals is often instinctual, sharpened by natural selection. Animals with a taste for certain plants stayed healthy, while pickier or unluckier eaters languished, and over time the taste became hereditary and innate. And the force by which the animal came to know to eat a certain food for its health is the phenomenon known as a craving. Or maybe a jonesing. Or maybe…

I choose you, Pikachu!

Pica pica!

…a pica. That’s what pregnancy experts call the craving for non-food items. And nobody knows cravings like a pregnant lady. Named for the magpie, Pica pica, which will eat just about anything, the pica phenomenon will extend to a hunger for dirt, ashes, clay, chalk, ice, laundry starch, baking soda, soap, toothpaste, paint chips, plaster, wax, hair, coffee grounds, and even cigarette butts. No one is sure exactly what causes pica, but it’s been suggested that the craving for dirt — geophagy, you’ll remember — is caused by an iron deficiency, or the lack of another mineral in the diet. Your ob/gyn will strongly warn against eating laundry starch and cigarette butts — heck, it’s not healthy to indulge every craving you have for jalapeno poppers, either — but geophagy has been in practice among pregnant women since time immemorial, and science is now figuring out that eating dirt might have benefits for humans similar to the benefits it affords the babirusa.

A craving for alcohol indicates a good idea deficiency.

A craving for cupcakes indicates a cupcake deficiency.

So while we thin the living medicine cabinets of the forest, forget our tradition of herbal folk remedies, and put our health in the hands of secretive corporations who may not have our best interests in mind, it is comforting to know that humanity may not have entirely lost our instinctual, evolution-born knowledge of medicine. The craving, our body’s way of telling us what we need, can be our bond with the Earth when we know how to properly listen to it.

"And hot dog juice, weirdly enough. Oh God, I must be pregnant."

"This dirt is okay, but you know what I could really go for? Nachos."

About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

8 responses to “Zoopharmacognosy

  • Tatyana Brown

    I wonder if pica (specifically geophagy) might also have to do with exposure to microbes etc. most commonly found in the preggo lady’s environment? I buy your nutritional argument, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this also helped prepare the immune system of the bun in the oven.

    Bonus points for the curandera reference, by the way.

  • WonderDave

    Irresponsible conjecture time is my favorite time always. Also when my mom was pregnant she craved blueberries which are one of my favorite foods. The same is true for one of my younger brothers and guacamole.

  • Rebecca

    Fascinating! When I teach bird classes for kids we play “bird charades,” where we give the kids cards with descriptions of various bird behaviors and ask them to act them out, and anting is one of the behaviors included. You answered a couple questions I’d been asked in class but didn’t know the answers to!

  • jen rinaldi

    SO interesting! When I taught in Brooklyn in the early 90s and we had tons of kids who were Haitian refugees, they ate our chalk. I don’t know specifically what deficiency it was fulfilling, but there is no doubt that the kids ate tons of chalk–it freaked me out at the time. Lately, I have been craving ice intensely, and despite some shady internet references to an iron deficiency as an explanation, it has not abated in the least since I started taking vitamins with iron in them. I don’t know–I figure as long as I don’t crack a tooth, it’s cool. Anyhoo, loved this post–makes so much sense, and we see the logic and evidence of it around us in so many ways.

    • quantumbiologist

      Being as chalk is made of calcium carbonate, I’d guess calcium. Or maybe something in their mothers’ diets made it hard for them to absorb calcium. But as I said, they don’t know what the real cause of pica is. As for your ice cravings, have you considered that maybe you’re just secretly dehydrated?

  • Copernicus


    This study in Georgia found chalk-eating to be culturally-linked. Who knows. Another function of kaolin chalk (besides making those National Geographic pages so smooth and heavy) is to provide a mechanical barrier to reduce diarrhea. Especially when combined with apple skins. Kaolin plus pectin equals “Kaopectate.”
    An industrial-version of which was also used recently to close the oil plume at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

  • BigV

    I may be wrong but please recheck you estrogen/progesterone statement. Progesterone is what is produced by the female when she is pregnant, so taking progesterone would fool the body into thinking it was already pregnant, thus it would not release any more eggs. Check birth control pill literature. You wouldn’t want someone reading your statement and then taking estrogen so she wouldn’t get pregnant (just the opposite).

    Again, I could be wrong (learned this stuff in College 30+ years ago).



    • quantumbiologist

      Hi BigV,

      I did check, and found that progesterone is as I said before: it supports fertility, and in humans, its medical applications include pregnancy aids as well as m-to-f transexual hormone therapy. You’re probably thinking of something else. But I’m still glad you made me re-read the literature on it, because now I know all kinds of fun facts about it!


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