Great Bustards can self-medicate with plants used in traditional medicine

Great Bustards can self-medicate with plants used in traditional medicine

If you see a Great Bustard (Otis has been delayed) in the wild, you probably won’t forget it. Massive, colorful and unmistakable, they are the heaviest flying birds alive today, with the largest size difference between the sexes. They are also ‘lek breeders’, where males congregate at selected locations to put on an audiovisual show for the visiting females, who choose a mate based on their appearance and the quality of their showbirdship.

But now, a study in Frontiers in ecology and evolution suggests that great bustards have another claim to our interest: they’re actively searching for two plants with compounds that can kill pathogens. They could therefore be a rare example of a bird using plants to treat diseases – i.e. for self-medication.

“Here we show that great bustards prefer to eat plants with chemical compounds with antiparasitic effects in vitrosaid Dr. Luis M. Bautista-Sopelana, research associate at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid and first author of the study.

co-author dr. Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid, said: “Great bustards are looking for two species of weeds that are also used by humans in traditional medicine. We show that both contain antiprotozoal and nematicidal (i.e., worm-killing) compounds, while the second also contains antifungal agents.”

Humans are not the only species that treat themselves

Animal self-medication is thought to occur with a lesser or greater degree of confidence in animals as diverse as primates, bears, deer, moose, macaws, honey bees, and fruit flies. But it’s difficult to prove with certainty in wild animals, Bautista-Sopelana warned: “We cannot compare between control and experimental treatments. And double-blind testing or dose-response studies, mandatory steps in human or veterinary medicine, are obviously impossible in wild animals.”

Listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, great bustards breed on grasslands from western Europe and northwest Africa to central and eastern Asia. About 70% of the world’s population live on the Iberian Peninsula. Females typically remain loyal to the home range where they hatched for life—10 to 15 years—while males return to the same lek site year after year after dispersal. By staying in the same area for long periods of time (and most importantly, pooping), they risk reinfecting themselves. And males need exceptional endurance during the mating season, which is likely to cause their immunity to skyrocket.

“Theoretically, both sexes of great bustards could benefit from seeking out medicinal plants during the mating season, when sexually transmitted diseases are common — while males using plants with anti-disease compounds could appear healthier, stronger, and more attractive to females,” said González- Coloma.

Some members of the current research team have been studying great bustards since the early 1980s, mainly in the regions of Madrid and Castilla y León, Spain. They collected a total of 623 droppings from female and male great bustards, 178 of them during the mating season in April. Using a microscope, they counted the abundance of discernible remains (tissues from stems, leaves and flowers) of 90 plant species that grow locally and are known to be on the bustards’ diet.

Contains compounds that kill parasites

The results showed that two species are eaten by great bustards more frequently than would be expected based on their abundance: corn poppies, Papaver rhoeas and purple viper bugloss, Echium plantaginum.

“Great bustards select poppies and purple vipers mainly during the mating season in April, when their energy expenditure is at its highest. And men, who devote much of their time and energy budget to sexual display during these months, prefer it more than women,” concluded Bautista-Sopelana.

Of these two species, the first is avoided by cattle and used in traditional medicine as a pain reliever, sedative and immune booster. The second is toxic to humans and cattle when consumed in large quantities. They also have nutritional value: poppy seeds are high in fatty acids, while purple otter seeds are high in edible oils.

The authors isolated water- and fat-soluble compounds from both species and determined their chemical identities using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS). They focused on lipids, volatile essential oils and alkaloids produced by many plants as a defense against herbivores. For example, they found that poppies are rich in bioactive alkaloids such as rhoeadine, rhoeagenine, epiberberine and canadine.

The authors then tested the activity of the isolated molecular fractions against three common avian parasites: the protozoan Trichomonas gallinaethe roundworm (parasitic worm) Meloidogyne javanicaand the mushroom Aspergillus niger.

The results show that extracts from both plants are highly effective at inhibiting or killing protozoa and nematodes in vitro, while purple viper bugloss is also moderately active against fungi.

However, the authors urge caution

The authors conclude that great bustards are the best candidates for birds looking for specific plants to treat themselves. But more research is needed, they warn.

“The ultimate proof of self-medication requires experimental protocols developed in the biomedical, veterinary and pharmacological sciences,” said Bautista-Sopelana.

“Until then, we will continue with our field work. For example, quantifying the prevalence of poppy and purple viper bugloss and faecal pathogens in different populations of great bustards could disprove our hypothesis of self-medication in this species.”

Relation: Bautista-Sopelana L, Bolívar P, Gómez-Muñoz MT, et al. Bioactivity of plants eaten by wild birds against laboratory models of parasites and pathogens. Forehead. School. development. 2022;10. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.1027201

This article was republished from the following materials. Note: The material may have been edited for length and content. For more information, please refer to the given source.

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