***Before reading the following post, it should be noted that addiction is a serious matter and this article is not intended to make light of the situation. However, one might find it interesting to know that humans are not alone in the battle against substance abuse, which brings us to our first Today in Weird post…
Addiction in the Animal Kingdom
Post by Jessica Orlidge
Edited by Jessica Schrader
The Bighorn Sheep’s Like of Lichen
Remaining populations of the bighorn sheep can be found in North America. Female bighorns are referred to as “ewes,” while males are more commonly known as “rams.” Like many of us in America, the bighorn sheep is not technically native to this continent; rather, its ancestors crossed the Beringia, or Bering Land Bridge, to resettle here from Siberia approximately 50,000 years ago (Gildart 19). Not surprisingly, their species is known for its adaptability: while bighorn sheep can survive the harsh winters of Canada, a subspecies known as the “desert bighorn” can endure the summers of the American Southwest. Perhaps more fascinating than both the great migration of the species and its adaptability, however, is the bighorn sheep’s susceptibility to addiction.
“In the Canadian Rockies the wild bighorn sheep do not roam far for food and stay close to bedding spots they may use for years. Yet they will negotiate narrow ledges, knife-edged outcrops, and dangerous talus slides to feed on a mysterious lichen,” claims Ronald K. Siegel, author of Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances (50). He continues to describe this extremely rare substance as “highly colored, crusty vegetation” that looks like Jackson Pollock decided to splatter onto a rock (50). Ewes and rams alike have been observed chewing and sucking on rocks, wearing their teeth “to the gums;” skulls have been discovered with the front teeth completely missing (50). After consumption, it was noted by humans that the behavior of these creatures changed—they seemed “’sick’” (50). Puzzled, it was eventually discovered that the lichen held narcotic properties, possibly explaining the odd behavior as a sort of intoxication. It might also explain why so many bighorns are willing to risk their lives to ingest the substance—and why so many do not survive the trip back from the steep slopes (50-51). (The following images are courtesy of MediaDump.com)
The mysterious appeal of lichen to sheep is not the only case of addiction in the North American animal kingdom. “Mules, horses, cattle, antelopes, pigs, rabbits, hens, bees,” and even insects have been known to experiment with “locoweed,” the plant’s name inspired by its ability to make animals act “loco”(Siegel 51). There are approximately 35 different kinds of toxic locoweed in the Americas, all of which have white/purple flowers and all of which contain a “rare group of indolizidine alkaloids” which produce “strong neurological and physiological effects” (51). One “locoed” horse reportedly ran through barbed-wire “as if it were not there” and “balk[ed] and rear[ed] at empty ground as if it were alive with snakes,” for example (52). Even human consumption results in a range of effects from “mild detachment” to “excitement” and “hallucinations”(52). When ranchers tried to separate livestock from locoweed, the animals often refused to eat any other food which sprung an endemic of lethal emaciation and dehydration (52). Sadly, by just 1883, roughly 25,000 cattle in Kansas alone were lost to “locoism” (a term for the “madness” that resulted from constant ingestion)(51). Younger generations often suffered birth defects and contaminated milk (53). Luckily, through research and eradication efforts, locoism seems to be under control. (Photo courtesy of ASPCA.org)
Bees Getting “Buzzed”
Did you know bees have a nervous system similar to humans? ‘Cause they do. This is why many scientists are testing alcohol’s impact on the bee brain in hopes to better understand its impact on memory, coordination, etc. In the wild, bees tend to seek out and devour fermented fruit resulting in intoxication (Fleckenstein 185). “Drunk bees” have been known to fly unsteadily back to their respective hives (185). (Photo courtesy of MediaDump.com)
This proclivity for alcohol can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Other species that have been known to imbibe alcohol or consume fermented fruits include birds, baboons, wild pigs, and elephants (185). In one tragic case, a herd of elephants stormed an Indian village. They raided a beer supply, consumed nearly everything, and drunkenly stomped about the town which resulted in six deaths.
Of course, there are several more cases of possible substance abuse amongst animals and insects that are not discussed here. For more info, check out the cited materials!
Fleckenstein, Annette, and Glen Hanson, Peter Ventrurelli. Drugs and Society: Eleventh Edition. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2012.
Gildert, Bert and Jane. Dinosaur National Monument: A Guide to Exploring the Great Outdoors. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
Siegel, Ronald K. Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substance. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1989.