Self-medicating butterflies may sound like a load of hippy nonsense, but this weeks TED talk presenter Jaap de Roode and his team assure as they are not. Much like humans, it has been found that animals have discovered ways to treat diseases with medication. De Roode’s talk, “How butterflies self-medicate”, focuses on his discoveries of the monarch butterfly and their use of medicinal milkweed to ensure protection for their offspring from the parasite ophryocystis elektroscirrha – though please don’t ask me how to pronounce that.
ophryocystis elektroscirrha typically produce spores, which attach themselves to the Monarch butterfly and hinder the Monarchs health, as well as its ability to fly. It is thought the parasite has cleverly adopted this ability for survival; in order to assure the Monarch is easily caught by predators such as birds. Though unaffected, these birds will travel many miles, ensuring the parasite is spread over a wide area once it has passed through the birds’ system. However, it appears that the Monarch butterfly has discovered a way of self-medicating that combats the effects of the parasite and allows the species to secure its future offspring.
Having studied the Monarch butterfly for a number of years, de Roode has discovered something truly amazing. By providing mother butterflies the choice of medicinal or non-medicinal milkweed on which to lay their eggs, de Roode was able to observe infected mothers predominantly choosing to lay their eggs on the former. Though it could be assumed this was purely coincidental, de Roode discovered that this choice was a pre-mediated decision by the butterflies. By choosing the medicinal milkweed, it was found that though infected mothers could not prevent the transfer of the parasite from themselves to their eggs upon laying them, when the eggs hatched and ate the medicinal milkweed, the offspring became less sick in the future. Not only this, adult butterflies afflicted by the parasites were also able to live longer when feeding on medicinal milkweed compared to its non-medicinal counterparts.
de Roode’s findings upon up the fascinating areas of discovery and research that come from zoopharmacognos (the study of self-medicating animals). We are already aware of several larger animals that self-medicate, including apes, elephants and even dogs (if you’ve ever wondered why your dog chooses to eat grass despite knowing it will make them throw up, this is probably their way of removing something harmful from their stomach). However the discovery of this ability in previously overlooked areas of the animal kingdom could have enormous impact on the way we humans approach treatment of diseases in the future. De Roode in particular feels we could learn much from the behaviour of the Monarch butterfly in terms of treating parasitic infection. Overall, de Roode’s talk provides a captivating look into the animal kingdom and our ability to use the natural world around us to heal. This is the perfect talk for any budding biologists, or anyone with an interest in the wonders of the natural world.
Jaap de Roode is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Emory University. His team study the relationship between parasites and their hosts, focusing on the Monarch butterfly and its parasite ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Check out de Roode’s TED talk, ‘How butterflies self-medicate’ on Ted.