Lessons from my extraordinary experience of acquiring followers
A few years ago, a group of researchers stumbled upon a female lemur engaging in a bizarre ritual. In her left hand was a millipede, freshly plucked from the forest floor. As the scientists watched, the lemur munched briefly on the millipede’s body, gnawing greedily until it oozed orange — and proceeded to rub the saliva-slicked drippings vigorously over her genitals, anus, and tail. After a well-earned break, she concluded the ordeal by gulping down the millipede’s spent body — but this encore act seemed to play second fiddle to her slathering shenanigans.
To better understand this behavior, that same team, led by Louise Peckre, a behavioral ecologist at the German Primate Center at the Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Germany, monitored two groups of red-fronted lemurs in the Kirindy Forest of Madagascar. In a study published this week in the journal Primates, the researchers found that lemurs in this locale munch on millipedes — but not for snacking purposes, or even grisly necrophilia. Instead, they believe these primates scrub themselves with the masticated carcasses to treat or prevent the spread of gastrointestinal disease — in essence, a form of self-medication.
“It’s not something that has been observed much in lemurs before, but it’s a group [in which] I’d expect to see it happening — they’re very curious and very smart,” says Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist and lemur expert at the American Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the new study.
Smearing smelly stuff on one’s body, or “self-anointing,” is a fairly widespread behavior in primates that was observed first in the 1980s, writes Sophia Daoudi for The Conversation. An individual from a different species of lemur was spotted mid-slather in the 1990s. But the motivations aren’t always clear and self-anointing doesn’t necessarily mean a primate is self-medicating.
To deter hungry predators, millipede bodies brim with toxic chemicals — including a class of substances called benzoquinones. By applying a DIY anointment of drool and millipede juice, primates may be exploiting the medicinal properties of these benzoquinones, which are known to act as an insect repellent. Scientists studying other primate species believe benzoquinones might protect against mosquito-borne diseases like malaria or yellow fever. Even though these same bug-killing chemicals can be toxic for the primates if ingested in high doses, the short-term…