Science

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

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

Bernd Zoller/imageBROKER/Getty Images

Avalon/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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.

imageBROKER/Ronald Wittek/imageBROKER/Getty Images

ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

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

Anastasiia Yanishevska / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

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.

Jesús Giraldo / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

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

Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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.

ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Shutterstock

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.

Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons

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

Jacky Parker Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Bernd Zoller/imageBROKER/Getty Images

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.

Gary Chalker/Moment/Getty Images

Frank Mcclintock / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

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.