Rakus the Orangutan Shocks Experts by Treating His Own Wounds With Plant Medicine

This is the first documented case of an animal self-medicating.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

May 7 2024, Published 12:33 p.m. ET

Rakus the Orangutan
Source: SUAQ Foundation/AFP via Getty Images

It's not uncommon for animals to get seriously injured out in the wild. From getting caught up in man-made catastrophes to suffering from wounds that come from inner-species skirmishes, there are plenty of ways to get hurt.

One thing that isn't common to see is animals treating their wounds using plant medicine. And that's what scientists say happened when Rakus the Orangutan healed himself after a fight with another orangutan left him injured.

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Rakus is making headlines after his improvised first aid was captured by observers, and now scientists say this approach to healing raises questions about the relationships between humans, animals, and medicine. Continue reading to learn what else the experts are saying about this exciting new development.

Rakus the Orangutan
Source: SUAQ Foundation/AFP via Getty Images
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An orangutan was seen healing himself with the leaves of a liana plant.

According to findings published in the Scientific Reports journal, an injured orangutan was spotted applying a paste of chewed-up liana leaves to his wounds. Per NPR, this species of liana is a vine known to have medicinal properties.

The multi-day treatment is the first documented incidence of an animal using plant medicine to self-medicate for external wounds. Since these observations occurred in a protected part of the Indonesian rainforest, researchers are now wondering exactly where Rakus learned this method.

Orangutans are known to have a social learning style, so it's possible that he saw another orangutan heal their wounds this way. Another theory is that he could've figured it out purely by accident after contact with the leaves previously numbed another part of his body.

But, the most intriguing idea scientists are kicking around hints at the relationship between orangutans and their human ancestors and whether this method is one that was passed down through the generations.

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As inventive as Rakus' self-medicating was, this isn't the first time researchers have seen animals treating themselves. NBC News notes that chimpanzees eat the leaves of certain plants on rare occasions, leading researchers to believe that they were doing so to treat an illness or infection.

In 2008, Bornean orangutans were spotted rubbing themselves with a paste made from the Dracaena cantleyi plant, which humans have used to mitigate pain in the joints and bones, as per NBC News.

You may have even witnessed an animal treating themselves using plant medicine at home, especially if you have a dog. Our four-legged friends are known to nibble on a bit of grass out in the yard during bouts of stomach upset, something that experts think helps them get relief.

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Rakus' story is different because while experts assume that they can assign motive to those chimpanzees and other primates who appeared to use plants to address hypothetical maladies, this is the first documented case where an animal with a visible wound used a plant known to have curative properties to heal themselves.

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Rakus is a 30-year-old Sumatran orangutan.

Researchers have been aware of Rakus since 2009 because of his frequent visits to protected parts of the rainforest. That familiarity allowed them to carefully and closely document the healing process, as Rakus was already accustomed to their presence.

It's absolutely amazing to think about animals having the ability to self-identify the types of plants they need to heal, and it raises questions not just about how much animals known and understand about the world around them, but about how much we've yet to learn from them.

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