Doctor Orangutan

We tend to view elite intelligence as a human monopoly. Sure, ravens, dolphins, and other primates display some impressive mental feats, but they didn’t devise general relativity or split the atom. Dogs, cats, and goats might be fit to run cities but we don’t usually allow them to hold positions of real consequence. You wouldn’t want a dog to serve as your doctor, for example. After all, Doctor Octopus wasn’t really a cephalopod but a human posing as an animal.

Perhaps, however, we don’t give the other creatures of the planet enough credit. An advanced medical degree might currently be out of range for non-human primates, but recent discoveries indicate non-human species might recognize the benefits of and utilize medicine.

Meet Rakus the orangutan:

Rakus the orangutan - photo by Safruddin/Suaq Project

This dapper young gentleman lives in Gunung Leuser National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Only a primatologist or stans of Rakus would likely notice the subtle signs of scarring under his right eye (left in the image above).

And that subtlety is due to Rakus’ doctoral skills.

In June 2022, researchers heard the preamble to a melee among male orangutans echoing through the jungle. The “long calls” of violence indicated some individuals would likely emerge wounded or worse.

A few days later, scientists found Rakus displaying the signs of a royal rumble:

Ouch - photo by Armas/Suaq Project via Max Planck Institute

Likely brawling with another male, Rakus materialized with quite an open wound on his face.

Perhaps Rakus could say, “You should see the other guy.” Or, possibly, he took the brunt of the battle. Either way, he became a winner in the eyes of human scientists because Rakus is the first known wild animal to become his own doctor via medicinal wound treatment.

Three days after the fight, researchers at the Suaq Bambling orangutan monitoring site discovered Rakus cultivating a specific plant. He found a vine called Akar Kuning, known locally as yellow root, and began utilizing it as a treatment. He chewed the leaves of the plant without swallowing for seven minutes, then took the succulent juices from his mouth and plastered them on his wound. During the process, flies began to land on the cut, so he covered the entire sore with leaves. When they abated, he began the chewing process again, applying the salve to his cheek.

Researchers noted that yellow root is rarely eaten by orangutans (just 0.3% of all “feeding scans” featured the flora), so the specific choice of the plant seems to have been for a deliberate purpose other than sustenance. Yellow root, as it turns out, includes “furanoditerpenoids and protoberberine alkaloids, which are known to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant, and other biological activities of relevance to wound healing,” according to a paper published by biologists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and Universitas Nasional in Indonesia. Indigenous people of the region have used yellow root as an analgesic and an antipyretic (anti-fever) for centuries.

Yellow root - photo by Isabelle Laumer et al./Max Planck Institute

Five days later, the wound had completely healed. A month later, researchers noted no signs of infection. Rakus had taken the famous proverb to a new level: “Physician, heal thyself.”

Two years later, Rakus continues to prowl the forests of Sumatra.

Orangutans often rank second on expert lists of the most intelligent primates, ahead of chimpanzees and behind only humans. Is this self-healing behavior widespread among orangutans or did Rakus stumble upon the knowledge by accident? Studies indicate that orangutans can share beneficial ideas among peers but this conduct had not previously been witnessed. Is this behavior an ancient knowledge? Could the ability to apply poultices, pain relievers, and antimicrobial substances stem from a distant ancestor of humans and orangutans?

Are there other abilities we consider the domain of humans that other animals might possess?

Will Rakus or another of his ilk matriculate at a medical school near you? Unlikely, though I’d rather have an exam from Rakus than Doc Ock, that’s for sure.

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