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Chimps Eat Dirt, Leaves to Fend Off Malaria

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
February 19, 2008
 
Chimpanzees in Uganda swallow mouthfuls of dirt to "self medicate" against malaria, according to a new study.

Clay soils consumed by both chimps and humans in Uganda's Kibale National Park contain high concentrations of the mineral kaolinite, a main ingredient in some anti-diarrheal medications.

Experts had previously suggested that chimps ate the fine-grained clay to help ward off intestinal ailments or to obtain added minerals in their diet.

But a French team recently observed that the chimps eat dirt before or after consuming leaves from the Trichilia rubescens plant, which contains potent medicinal chemicals.

Eating the bitter vegetation alone gives the chimps no health benefit, researchers say.

Instead the plant's malaria medicine is activated when fine soil particles bind with chemicals in the leaves.

(Related news: "DDT to Return as Weapon Against Malaria, Experts Say" [August 1, 2006].)

Chimps often select dirt that has been exposed on the roots of newly fallen trees, added study co-author Sabrina Krief, of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

"This may be to avoid worms, bacteria, and stones," she said.

Krief and colleagues described the research online in the January issue of the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Daily Dirt

In humans, soil consumption—or geophagy—has often been viewed as a sign of metabolic disorder or even mental illness.

But the practice is relatively common among animals and is now understood to yield important health benefits.

In parrots and macaws, for example, clay particles are thought to help neutralize toxins present in some favored food sources.

Soil-eating may also provide a soothing coating to the animals' digestive tracts.

In Uganda, however, Krief and colleagues suspected that the chimps were eating soil for other reasons than simply to combat indigestion.

Like humans, chimps can suffer the potentially fatal effects of malaria, although the types of Plasmodium parasites that cause the disease in chimps are different from the four known to infect people. (See a close-up image of malaria parasites attacking a human's red blood cells.)

In previous laboratory studies, Krief's team had found that extracts of the Trichilia plant were effective in fighting the parasite that causes malaria in chimps.

"I noticed that the chimps often eat soil just before or after eating Trichilia leaves," Krief said. "I wondered what might be the effect of mixing the two substances."

To investigate, Krief and colleagues constructed a laboratory model that duplicated chimpanzees' chewing and digestion.

The researchers ground up leaves and soaked them in an acid solution similar to the chimps' digestive fluids. The mixture was then tested for its ability to kill the malarial parasite.

Solutions of artificially digested leaves without soil showed no anti-malarial activity.

But when samples of the soil consumed by the chimps were added to the mix, the researchers found a strong disease-fighting effect.

Natural Remedies

Chimps and other apes may treat themselves for a variety of ailments by consuming plants, earth, and other materials, experts say.

In another part of Africa, chimps are known to swallow certain leaves to help rid themselves of intestinal parasites.

Previous work by Krief and others had shown that of the 163 plant species Kibale chimps are known to eat, at least 35 are used in humans' traditional medicine.

"The shared use of plants by humans and apes shows how the tropical forest is a unique resource for wildlife, local communities, and western medicine," Krief said.

Jim Moore is an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the new study.

"It's been known for a long time that chimpanzees selectively eat certain plants in ways and at times that only really make sense if they are self-medicating," Moore said.

"This paper is the first I'm aware of to suggest synergistic action of soil and a putatively medicinal plant, and that's important."

But Moore noted that the anti-malaria effect has only been shown in the researchers' model and not yet in living chimps.

"It isn't clear that chimpanzees are seeking the synergy [between leaves and soil]," Moore said. "The paper isn't persuasive in eliminating other hypotheses for geophagy."

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