Science

Can this bird self-medicate with plants to kill parasites? Some researchers think so

The great bustard’s secret weapon is ... vegetation.

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At first glance, the diet of the great bustard — one of Earth’s heaviest flying birds — seems like nothing to balk at.

Bustards munch on plants and sometimes insects — a pretty typical diet for many birds.

But during mating season, they appear to favor certain foods that could offer medicinal benefits.

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Researchers writing this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology Evolution investigated the diets of great bustards in Spain, and found some surprising results.

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Analyzing bustard poops, they found that two specific plants are more frequently eaten by males:

-The red poppy, Papaver rhoeas

-The purple viper's-bugloss, Echium plantagineum

However, it was only in samples collected during mating season that the males appear to have a preference for this flora.

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During this time of year, male bustards spend a lot of time wooing females with their intricate displays.

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It’s an energy-intensive process that can leave males with weakened immune systems.

And bustards are susceptible to a range of parasites, which are harder to fight off if a bird isn’t in the best health.

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In a previous study, the same research team reported that male bustards will eat toxic blister beetles during mating season.

Their toxins appear to kill or harm a variety of pathogens in a lab setting.

So the scientists tested the red poppy and the purple viper’s bugloss in the lab to see if the plants had any pathogen-killing properties, too.

Sure enough, both species appear to kill or slow the growth of parasites in lab tests, similar to blister beetle toxins.

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This leads the researchers to hypothesize that great bustards might be self-medicating during mating season to keep themselves illness-free.

However, the research has its caveats.

Because great bustards are a vulnerable species in Spain, the researchers were not able to study the bird’s bodies or behaviors, just their droppings.

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And since great bustards are distributed around Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, more research on different populations could change or confirm the self-medication hypothesis.

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