Butterflies May Use Medicinal Plants

Emory University biologists have found Monarch butterflies may use milkweed plants to reduce infections in their offspring. Female monarch adults infected with a parasite, choose to lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants. The leaves act as both food and medicine for the offspring, as they are toxic to parasites in the larvae. Non-infected female monarchs had no preference for the types of milkweed leaves they laid their eggs on.

Researcher Jaap de Roode said, “We believe that our experiments provide the best evidence to date that animals use medication.” (Source: Sciencedaily.com) Their findings were published October 6, in the journal Ecology Letters.

They also found the mother’s behavior benefits only the offspring, and not the mother, which means the behavior is trans-generational. How the behavior, which resembles human foresight, came to be is a mystery.

The fact such behavior exists, suggests a kind of intelligence in nature that is not always conceded or understood.

Ecologist Mark Hunter who assisted with the research said, “When I walk around outside, I think of the plants I see as a great, green pharmacy. But what also strikes me is how little we actually know about what that pharmacy has to offer. Studying organisms engaged in self-medication gives us a clue as to what compounds might be worth investigating for their potential as human medicines.” (Source: Sciencedaily.com)

Dozens of milkweed species make up the caterpillar’s diet. Some of the milkweed plants contain a chemical that is harmless to caterpillars, but is toxic to their predators. Jaap de Roode wanted to investigate whether the choice of milkweed plants for egg laying was not only about acquiring the toxin to ward off predators. It appears he made an important discovery, not only for science, but potentially for human medicine. Mr. Hunter said such use of plants might indicate they have medicinal value for humans as well as insects. He has been awarded a grant to examine the chemical components of milkweed plants for potential therapeutic agents.

Monarchs are famous for their colors and annual migratory movements to Mexico from the United States. Soon they might also be known for their use of natural medicine.

Image Credit: Tulip32

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sandra m.
Past Member 6 years ago

Isn't that interesting!

Vanesa Bettez
Vanesa Bettez7 years ago

Roberto Vivas, Yes. Using green and biological agents to control crop infestations is a worthwhile adjustment.

SANDRA R7 years ago

Amazing! Thank you Jake!!!

Roberto Vivas
Roberto Vivas7 years ago

Amazing what the butterflies can do! Now if we could stop spraying pesticides on plants..

leyna stemle
leyna stemle7 years ago

Cool! :) thanks!

Gita Sasi Dharan
Gita Sasi Dharan7 years ago

I thought as much. Dogs and cats eat grass for digestion. My dogs eat lots of Hibiscus leaves every day that I have to grow more shoe flower bushes in my garden. Very interesting article, thanks.

Dianne D.
Dianne D7 years ago

That would be interesting to know animals use plants for medicine. We have a lot to learn from animals.

Anja N.
Justin R7 years ago

Very interesting. Thanks Jake.

Past Member
Past Member 7 years ago


Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS7 years ago

Wow! There's always something new and wonderful to discover about the intricacy in the interactions of plants and animals and nature overall. Just another lesson why we cannot afford to lose species through human actions.