By now I am sure everyone has seen the short video showing a jaguar purportedly hallucinating after eating leaves from the ayahuasca vine. The clip is from the Peculiar Potions episode of the BBC Weird Nature series. If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:
Now there is no doubt that many animals self-medicate with plants. A field of study known as zoopharmacognosy has grown up to investigate this phenomenon, utilizing the talents of animal behavorists, ecologists, pharmacologists, anthropologists, geochemists, and parasitologists.
The field was founded in large measure by one person — primatologist Michael Huffman at Kyoto University in Japan. In 1987, in the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, Huffman observed a chimpanzee suffering from diarrhea pull a young shoot off a small tree named Vernonia amygdalina. The chimpanzee stripped off the leaves and bark with her teeth, and chewed on the branch, swallowing the juice and spitting out the fibers. The chimpanzee ate several of the branches in this way for half an hour. The next day, the chimpanzee, who suffered from an intestinal parasite infection, was back to normal. Exactly the same plant — called mujonso, or bitter-leaf tree — is used by indigenous humans in the same area as a remedy for the same condition.
The word zoopharmacognosy was coined by Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University. "Some of the compounds we've identified by zoopharmacognosy," he told an interviewer, "kill parasitic worms, and some of these chemicals may be useful against tumors. There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world." Huffman agrees. He says, "The probability that animals may have something to teach us about the medicinal use of plants is quite high."
There is, I think, little doubt that animals — or at least primates — also ingest hallucinogens. Baboons eat small amounts of Datura inoxia and Datura stramonium, both of which are rich in hallucinogenic scopolamine; gorillas have been observed to ingest Tabernanthe iboga, which contains ibogaine. It is not clear whether, in either case, enough is ingested to cause hallucinations, or the plants are eaten in smaller doses for other reasons.
So: Is the jaguar eating leaves of the ayahuasca vine in order to hallucinate? I think we can base no conclusions on this video, which seems to me to be an obvious fake. It is true that the leaves pictured in the first second or two of the video appear in fact to be leaves of the ayahuasca vine; compare the leaves in the video to the Banisteriopsis caapi leaves pictured at right. But I can find little else to give me confidence.
We, of course, do not have a clue as to what the jaguar is experiencing, if it is in fact experiencing anything other than perfectly normal jaguar perceptions and perhaps sleepiness. We do not have a clue about how a jaguar would behave if it was hallucinating. We certainly have no idea how a jaguar would react to relatively low doses — the jaguar apparently eats just a few leaves, and a jaguar weighs between 120 and 220 pounds — of the β-carbolines found in the ayahuasca vine.
There is nothing in the video to indicate that it was not shot entirely in a zoo, and then intercut with stock footage of jungle animals and an actor playing an indigenous hunter for three seconds. There is no explanation of why so many ayahuasca leaves — it is, after all, a vine — are growing so conveniently low to the ground. I do not know why the announcer was not taught how to pronounce the word yagé. If this video was shot in the jungle, I am in awe of a camera operator so intrepid as to get a close-up of the eyeball of a wild jaguar.
I just don't buy it. Any other opinions?