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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Bear Went Over...To the Pharmacy

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with ethnobotanist Shawn Sigstedt about recent discoveries that some animals, including some bears and apes, apparently use medicinal plants.


CURWOOD: Humans may be the only ones to talk about it on the radio, but apparently they are not the only animals to visit nature's pharmacy. According to researchers in the relatively new science of zoo pharmacognocy, some animal species. . . among them apes and bears. . . . have also been found to use medicinal plants. Shawn Sigstedt is an ethnobiologist who has spent a decade studying the bear root in the Rocky Mountains. . . He says he's observed some interesting encounters between the plant and its namesake.

SIGSTED: What the bears do is they take the root of the bear root plant, and they chew it up, and they rub it onto their paws from their mouth,and then they rub it all over their face, and their fur and behind their ears, and then finally over their whole body. And this is an indication that the plant is being used for something other than food. Now small quantities of the plant are also being swallowed.
CURWOOD: What do you suppose the plant does for them medicinally?
SIGSTED: Because the plant is a broad-spectrum medicinal plant, which humans use for rheumatism, arthritis, for stomach problems and for sore muscles, it's very possible that the bear is using the plant for similar reasons. It's also been discovered that there are fungicides within the bear root plant, and it's also been discovered that there are steroids, cardiac lycocides, and coumarins, and these different chemicals have been useful for humans in medicine, and may also be useful for bears.
CURWOOD: What can we as humans learn from bears and these other animals -- I take it, monkeys as well ?
SIGSTED: What can we learn from them? I think we have an opportunity to very rapidly learn some medicinal compounds which are present in plants which would be much more difficult and much more expensive to learn otherwise. In fact, recently I was giving a class, and a Laguna Pueblo young woman was hearing the story and observing the bear in a videotape, and she said that her grandfather, a medicine man, told her that the proper way to use the plant would be to take the plant, rub it, ah, chew it up and then rub it all over her face and her hair. And so it's a fascinating parallel, that both the Native Americans, in many cases, and the bears are using the plant in an identical manner. Since the animals biologically are quite similar to us, we are wise if we use the animals as a guide, as a lead to which plants contain secondary compounds and we're even wiser if we attend to the knowledge of the indigenous people throughout the world.

CURWOOD: Sean Sigsted is an ethnobiologist working in the Rocky Mountains. . . He joined us from the studios of KRCC, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.



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