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8 Dec, 2020 12:16

Toucan play that game: Sparrows found to mimic human behavior by using preventative medicine to protect their young

Toucan play that game: Sparrows found to mimic human behavior by using preventative medicine to protect their young

New research from China suggests that russet sparrows use the leaves from a particular tree to line their nests and protect their young from parasites, indicating a primitive form of preventative medicine use.

A team led by Hainan Normal University ecologist Canchao Yang found that russet sparrows in China are using wormwood leaves to line their nests to protect their offspring from parasites which may impede their growth. 

The sparrows begin lining their nests with the special leaves at the same time the local human population hangs wormwood from their doorways to mark the traditional Dragon boat festival, with antiparasitic benefits suspected to play at least some role in the human tradition.  

“The belief that this behavior confers protection against ill health is supported by the description of anti-parasite compounds in wormwood,” Yang says. 

“It has been suggested that the incorporation of fresh wormwood leaves into nests may serve a similar function for sparrows.”

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To test their hypothesis, Yang and his team examined 48 pairs of nest boxes, some with five grams of wormwood inside and the other with five grams of bamboo. 

Once the russet sparrows populated the nests, researchers began adding small increments of wormwood or bamboo each day (while other nests received no additional treatment as a control). 

They then weighed the amount of wormwood the sparrows themselves brought home each day and found that the birds favored locations close to ample wormwood supplies, which they used to reinforce the lining in their nests daily and top-up their medicinal fortifications. 

Sure enough, when the chicks hatched, the nests with higher amounts of wormwood leaves were found to have fewer parasites, which corresponded with heavier and healthier chicks. 

“Our results indicate that russet sparrows, like humans, use wormwood as a preventative herbal medicine to protect their offspring against ill health,” says ecologist William Feeney, from Griffith University in Australia.

One has to wonder who is mimicking who?

Primitive forms of medicine use have been observed in the animal kingdom before, with pregnant elephants in Kenya reportedly eating a particular plant to induce birth while other creatures have been observed making use of medicinal plants for health and recreational reasons. 

Butterflies have been found to drink beer, while elephants and certain bird species have been discovered drunk from fermented berries. A reportedly “drunk” moose even became stuck in an apple tree in Sweden.

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