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Even animals indulge in self-medication

Animal pharmacists! The practice of self-medication in animal is lot more widespread than previously thought, according to new research.

Washington: Animal pharmacists! The practice of self-medication in animal is lot more widespread than previously thought, according to new research.

Animals use medications to treat various ailments through both learned and innate behaviours, researchers said.

The fact that moths, ants and fruit flies are now known to self-medicate has profound implications for the ecology and evolution of animal hosts and their parasites, according to ecologist Mark Hunter from the University of Michigan.

Because plants remain the most promising source of future pharmaceuticals, studies of animal medication may lead the way in discovering new drugs to relieve human suffering, Hunter and two colleagues wrote in a review article to be published in the journal Science.

"When we watch animals foraging for food in nature, we now have to ask, are they visiting the grocery store or are they visiting the pharmacy?" Hunter, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said.

"We can learn a lot about how to treat parasites and disease by watching other animals," he said.

Much of the work in this field has focused on cases in which animals, such as baboons and woolly bear caterpillars, medicate themselves.

Hunter and his colleagues suggested that researchers in the field should "de-emphasise the `self` in self-medication" and base their studies on a more inclusive framework.

"Perhaps the biggest surprise for us was that animals like fruit flies and butterflies can choose food for their offspring that minimizes the impacts of disease in the next generation.

"There are strong parallels with the emerging field of epigenetics in humans, where we now understand that dietary choices made by parents influence the long-term health of their children," Hunter said.

Researchers argued that animal medication has several major consequences on the ecology and evolution of host-parasite interactions. For one, when animal medication reduces the health of parasites, there should be observable effects on parasite transmission or virulence.

In addition, animal medication should affect the evolution of animal immune systems, according to Hunter and his colleagues. Honeybees are known to incorporate antimicrobial resins into their nests.

Analysis of the honeybee genome suggests that they lack many of the immune-system genes of other insects, raising the possibility that honeybees` use of medicine has been partly responsible - or has compensated - for a loss of other immune mechanisms.

Researchers also note that the study of animal medication will have direct relevance for human food production.