The animal that takes care of itself


The great bustard ( Otis tarda ) known as the animal that holds the record for the heaviest bird in the world able to fly, also seems to be specialized in self-medication and does so with the method of traditional medicine. A study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution shows that they actively seek out – at specific times of the year – two types of plants with compounds capable of annihilating parasites and pathogens.


The deepening of what is called “ethnopharmacology” is the basis of the study. Scientists have tried to test the activity of some plant components in the laboratory to study their bactericidal or antiparasitic functions, inspired by the behavior of bustards in the wild. These animals, in nature, eat in particular two plant species that have two different functions and in particular they feed on them during the mating season. The first is Papaver rhoeas , the common poppy, the second is Echium plantagineum , the viperine plantain.

Love stresses

The study reveals a difference in this behavior between male and female bustards. The male specimens are much more fond of these two plant species than the females. Researchers hypothesized that these plants could be more useful to males during the mating season because, during this period, their immune systems are more weakened as they devote body and soul to investing energy in the development of male secondary sexual characteristics (e.g. example, change of plumage) and in courtship behaviors, also called “sexual display”.

Study co-author Dr Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid, said: ‘Great bustards seek out two species of weed that are also used by humans in traditional medicine. We have shown that both contain antiprotozoal , nematicide (ie, worm-killing) and antifungal compounds .”


As a first exploration of the bioactivity of these plants, the researchers evaluated extracts from both plants against samples of pathogens, including a flagellated protozoan ( Trichomonas gallinae ), a nematode ( Meloidogyne javanica ), and a fungus ( Aspergillus niger ). Poppy extracts, represented by aerial parts, especially flowers and capsules, and extracts of leaves and flowers of viperina plantaginea, showed activity against nematodes and trichomonads . The bioactivity of these plants at the expense of parasites could explain the foraging behavior of stressed animals .


What would also deserve further study and insight is the chemical communication underlying the fauna’s ability to recognize these plants, since it is much less known and investigated.

  • Bioactivity of plants eaten by wild birds against laboratory models of parasites and pathogens. (


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