The Hidden Knowledge of Animals — Mark Plotkin on Nature’s Medicine Cabinet (#537)

Mark Plotkin, smiling, holds up a toad, Bufo marinus, in his hand while standing in lush grass somewhere in Suriname.
Bufo marinus from Suriname Credit: Mark J. Plotkin

“The study of how animals use plants for medicinal purposes is termed ‘zoopharmacognosy,’ but our observation of this phenomenon is, without question, an ancient practice. Who has not watched a dog swallow grass to induce vomiting when the animal has eaten something unhealthy it wishes to regurgitate?”

— Dr. Mark Plotkin

This special episode of The Tim Ferriss Show features Dr. Mark Plotkin (@DocMarkPlotkin) .

Mark is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with ~80 tribes to map and improve management and protection of ~100 million acres of ancestral rainforests. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books ever written about the rainforest. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can find my first interview with Mark at

He is also the host of the Plants of the Gods podcast, through which you can learn about everything from hallucinogenic snuffs to the diverse formulations of curare (a plant mixture which relaxes the muscles of the body and leads to asphyxiation), and much, much more.

Today’s episode focuses on how animals use medicinal plants, and it has some wild stories featuring cows, penguins, pigs, frogs, and everything in between. It’s pulled from a chapter in Mark’s book Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets. I loved the chapter, and I asked Mark if he’d be willing to record it in audio to share it with you all. He agreed and here we are. 

Please enjoy!

If you prefer to read the chapter, you can find the full text here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform.

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#537: The Hidden Knowledge of Animals — Mark Plotkin on Nature’s Medicine Cabinet

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear my first conversation with Dr. Mark Plotkin? Lend your ears to our discussion about Richard Evans Schultes as a “trickster” in the shamanic tradition, how a shaman in the northeastern part of the Amazon cured Mark’s foot pain instantly when no one else could, the “holes” in Western medicine’s understanding, hallucinogenic frogs, the risks of ayahuasca and other Amazon-derived hallucinogens, and much more.

#469: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America


  • Connect with Dr. Mark Plotkin:

Website | Plants of the Gods Podcast

Amazon Conservation Team | Twitter | Facebook



  • Why Dr. Jane Goodall — contrary to the policy of many other field biologists — names the chimps she studies, and why human beings might be later to the party of medicinal plant wisdom than some of the species with whom we share the wildernesses of the world. [04:23]
  • All the commercial medicines derived from the rainforests of Africa, Asia, and the Americas were initially extracted from plants observed in use by local tribespeople. Without indigenous people to guide us, how can we best determine which plants merit laboratory investigation? Look to the animals. [05:55]
  • The mariqui monkeys of Brazil seem to understand that eating certain plants will keep them free of parasites, and other plants act as birth control. [09:39]
  • Female howler monkeys in Central America appear to control whether their offspring will be male or female by plants they choose to eat around time of copulation. [11:49]
  • On zoopharmacognosy, barfing dogs, and how bleeding cattle led to the development of several blockbuster drugs. [13:07]
  • Some animals (like the pufferfish) ingest and store toxic compounds to use in their own defense. Some sushi lovers roll the dice anyway. [17:46]
  • Why do Ugandan chimpanzees seek out the Aspilia daisy? Did the local humans learn to use it for its medicinal properties by observing these chimps? [22:31]
  • Even if animals lead us to discover compounds too toxic for humans, they’re often a boon to the veterinarian’s medicine bag. [32:29]
  • Some plants harbor compounds potentially useful both for human and veterinary medicine: consider the noble fig. [34:13]
  • Pregnant elephants and Kenyan women know a thing or two about the borage tree. [35:04]
  • Do sick African crested porcupines really use a root called mulengelele to expel parasites? Are fish stunned by nekoe stems excreted by tapirs? Or are these just folk tales? [36:52]
  • Do we conclude that chimpanzees use medicinal plants more than other creatures because they’re what we’re most attracted to observing? If this is the case, what have we been missing? [41:36]
  • Have these animal-plant interactions only been observed in the tropics? [44:52]
  • How coatimundis and capuchins vex vermin. [47:01]
  • Even birds do it. [48:34]
  • Parting thoughts on what may come from further study, and a lament over what’s already been lost. [51:38]


“American aviators preparing to fly over the jungles of Indochina during the Second World War were taught that the best way to survive if shot down was to ‘eat what the monkeys eat.’ While the overarching value of this advice was probably psychological (some monkeys have chambered stomachs capable of digesting leaves that would poison and possibly kill a human), this recommendation may ironically prove more beneficial for medicinal purposes.”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin

“If we can find new painkillers from frogs, new stimulants from porcupines, new antiparasitics from penguins, new antibiotics from chimps, and new contraceptives from wooly spider monkeys, what else might be out there, in the forest, on the prairie, or inside the coral reef, being used by local species and awaiting our discovery of its benefit to our own species?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin

“When the Portuguese first arrived on the eastern shores of Brazil almost 500 years ago, the population of muriqui monkeys probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now their population has been reduced to a few hundred individuals, and more than 90 percent of their once magnificent rainforests has been destroyed. Who knows what we lost, either in terms of the actual chemicals, the species that produced them, or the primate knowledge of how to use them, not only for their benefit but, potentially, for ours as well?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin

“Though pomegranate root bark is known to contain an alkaloid that kills tapeworms, neither the pig nor the pomegranate is native to Mexico; the Spanish conquistadors brought both to the New World. The pigs nonetheless selectively seek out and consume the roots of this tree as their ancestors once did in the Old World.”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin

“The study of how animals use plants for medicinal purposes is termed ‘zoopharmacognosy, but our observation of this phenomenon is, without question, an ancient practice. Who has not watched a dog swallow grass to induce vomiting when the animal has eaten something unhealthy it wishes to regurgitate?”
— Dr. Mark Plotkin


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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One Reply to “The Hidden Knowledge of Animals — Mark Plotkin on Nature’s Medicine Cabinet (#537)”

  1. Tim your deep research and your brilliant knack of questioning, and answering aptly where needed in a prudent manner and in a pretty nuanced way, makes these complex subject simple learn and so much more insightful to hear. It is exemplifies in this discussion.

    This is such a fascinating conversation, just not about the concept of ethnobotany but much more on the way human and nature has evolved, and how mankind has become so unkind to nature. Why nature is so important aspect of nurturing human nature, ironically we have kept nature out of our purview. There is no review to take of such stock. The more we listen to such deep knowledge between plant and people, the more we realize what blunders we are committing by distancing ourselves away from the richness of forest and healing traditons of indegenous tribes.

    Not about the medicinal power that we derive form nature which has been rampantly exploited by the modern world, nothing wrong deriving the knowledge from the nature for the betterment of mankind but the bigger question is at what cost. There can’t be a better person than Dr. Plotkin who has spend so much time out there and being there with the tribes, and having the heart to bridge with the brains of the modern world where it is looked from one distorted angle and that is so much to do with making profit, little thought is spared or no mind is spend on the presevation of those tradition and conservation of nature. We are taking so much but giving so little, we have lost the culture of giving and sharing.

    Everything was there in the nature and so much more is still there, though we have lost so much and we have no clue, if we don’t do anything to nurture the culture of our nature and it is there in these beautiful tribes across not just Amazon rainforest but here in India across the belts of Himalayan and also we have the North-East of India with such rich biodiverity and local tribes with such rich knolwedge of healing practices using the power of plants medicines.

    The traditional healing practices in India has been spread across different parts but it never got the space to grow and expand with the modern medicines thrust by thes large corporates driven purely by profit and that’s there goal, nothing wrong but how to strike a balance, not possible to have a perfect one but some balance to get the best of two different worlds, and it is so beautifully articulated by Dr. Plotkin. He is the best person to do…

    Many times we have greater thinkers but not much is done on the ground, the field work which matters, many great scientists are out there but they are driven by western medicine and are locked in the sophisticated labs, and there are researchers who has such great repository of knowledge but they find it difficult to articulate and communicate in a manner that is accessible and understood by common people like me, here we have Dr. Plotkin having a perfect balance of everything, he is in a way an epitome of knowledge and knows how to make that knowledge simplified and widely shareable. One must listen to do one’s part to care about nature and share a part with the local tribes in their part of the world…