Birds Figured Out How to Cure Malaria a Long Time Ago

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Over the years, different groups of humans have learned how to prevent or treat malaria by using quinine. It seems, though, that none of us are as advanced as sparrows, which have been regularly using quinine to treat themselves during malaria outbreaks for thousands of years.

Quinine is an alkaloid, one of a wide variety of basic, nitrogen-rich compounds found in plants. Some, like nicotine, calm us down. Some, like caffeine, wake us up. Quinine’s best attribute is its ability to treat malaria, which prevents the microorganism that causes it from creating a mechanism to separate itself from its own toxic waste products. Enough quinine and the parasite poisons itself.

The Peruvians first discovered quinine use in treating malaria, as local cinchona plants were rich in it. Over time, Spanish missionaries learned about the cinchona bark, and soon the world knew.


Meanwhile, house sparrows in India have been consuming quinine during malaria outbreaks for thousands of years, via the quinine-rich paradise flower tree. In 1998, scientists in India noticed that when an outbreak of malaria flared up, these birds would both eat and line their nests with the greenery from the flower tree. When the scientists stripped the nests of the herb, the sparrows quickly replaced it. And this lasted as long as the outbreak did.

Image: Dawn