LSD lemurs and millipedes with Daniela Bolanos Garcia

Animals have always been subjects to test new compounds, from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. The following is the story of the NYCU professor and Anthropology Department, John Buettner-Janusch.

The story of John Buettner-Janusch (known as B-J) is one of if not the most controversial stories to hit the NYCU during the 80s. 

Those who knew B-J always described him as someone with a brilliant mind yet, volatile, capricious, and sometimes even brutal, he was kind and caring, but those characteristics could vanish in minutes.

Quoting a professor of Duke and colleague of B-J : “peremptory, uncompromising, unpredictable, unreasonable and arbitrary.” 

B-J was an anthropologist in love with the origins of man, which was one of the titles that had a lasting influence in the field (Origins of Man [1966] and Physical Anthropology: A Perspective [1973]). With this love for the origins of mankind, he founded and developed Duke Primate Center where he would study Lemurs, a species he was very fond of. 


B-J with a lemur at his lab. 

As far as the story goes, B-J would yet know that studying these primates would lead to his demise. During this period, things started to become dark for B-J, with rumors that he had killed his at the time wife and long-time collaborator Vina Mallowitz Buettner-Janusch, with a highly carcinogenic that he stole from the lab. 

Those who knew him believed that losing his long-time partner and his rudder would be the trigger to lose his stride. 

Influenced by the popular research of Albert Hofmann at Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland and the deeds of Augustus Owsley Stanley III at UC Berkeley, he set himself alongside his graduate students, sailing on a synthesis of LSD and Methaqualone. He would be open about this “Project Lemur” and not try to hide it, claiming it would be used for experiments on Lemurs. 

Methaqualone at the time was not only illegal in the streets of New York but popular on disco dance floors, rock clubs, and dorm rooms across the United States, being considered the second most popular illicit substance used in the 80s after Cannabis. Part of the street supply of the compound came from the pharmaceutical companies under the brand name Quaaludes and Sopor, but the number one source was manufactured illegally, despite its pharmaceutical value, this substance joined Schedule I. 

Janusch started being investigated for manufacturing illicit compounds, to which he would always elude authorities that he was synthesizing not LSD and Methaqualone, but analogues to administer in lemurs. The lies fell short as at the time they found one kilo of methaqualone, but no lemurs. Thus, Janusch became known as “Professor Quaalude ” by the media. B-J was convicted in 1980 and paroled for a five-year sentence in 1983.

However, this story was far from being finished, B-J revolted with anger toward the prosecutor and the judge responsible for his case. He constantly referred to her as a “Nazi whore” and the federal judge as “a lunatic”.  

Seeking revenge, he anonymously sent a box of poisoned chocolates to the federal judge responsible for his case, Charles L. Brieant Jr., as well as others. Brieant’s wife became ill after eating the chocolates. This was considered the fall of John Buettner-Janusch, he stood up to plead guilty, admitting that he made the chocolates himself, inserted the poisons into them, put them in Godiva boxes, and mailed them.

B-J was given a sentence of 20 years in prison but he would pass away of AIDS after serving six years, near the end of his life he stopped eating and was being force-fed.

John Buettner-Janusch’s story is described in more detail in Peter Kobel’s book “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor”.



Although the previously mentioned lemur intoxication would be caused by an external factor and non-obtainable compounds in nature, red-fronted lemurs actually do get high in their natural habitat using psychoactive millipedes. To learn more about this ritualistic consumption we spoke to the Tropical Biology student Daniela Bolanos Garcia.







Could you tell us more about your course, why you picked tropical biology, and your future projects?


Firstly I would like to thank you for inviting me to this interview. It’s an honor. 

I’m a 23-year-old tropical biology student at the National University of Costa Rica and I’m in the last year of my bachelor’s degree. If you ask me why I chose Biology as my career I’d probably say because nature makes me feel in love. It sounds crazy but I can feel my heart burst into love every time I see a giant tree or a tiny bee, I had technical formation in secretariat and administration at high school and I realized how much I hated to be in an office, wearing formal clothes and waiting to be called by your boss to get them a cup of coffee and sent a letter; hiking, getting full of dirt and grabbing tiny bugs was always my thing, fresh air would make me feel complete, so after several “you’re going to end up broke and living under a bridge” coming from my family members, I chose tropical biology. Right now I´m going one step at a time. I know what I want for my future, but coming from Latin America is never easy, success takes a bit longer. In my future projects I see myself studying in Europe and furthermore having a job in Australia, but we’ll have to wait, hope, work hard, and see.

Now for what all have been waiting for, let us enter into the topic of lemurs!


What are the exact species of millipedes that these species consume? 


Lemurs consume several species in their day to day life. However, these specific species are thought to be Sechelleptus spp., Spirostreptidae. As stated in the research of Louise R. Peckre. (Peckre, L.R. et al (2018). Potential self-medication using millipede secretions in red-fronted lemurs: combining anointment and ingestion for a joint action against gastro-intestinal parasites? Primates DOI: 10.1007/s10329-018-0674-7)


Why and how do they consume them and why do they rub these millipedes in their body?


Lemurs have been seen in several parts of Madagascar chewing and rubbing millipedes on their fur. Hypotheses say that that type of behavior may be due to communication between lemurs or even because this rubbing process may be a way to reduce the toxicity of these macroinvertebrates to convert them into a nice meal. Nevertheless, a study conducted by Peckre et al. (2018) revealed that this behavior called “anointing” is actually a way to fight parasites.

Oxyuridae nematode infections are common among Madagascar’s lemurs, especially during the wet season, this means that they had to find a way to get rid of the parasites and it seems like millipede secretions (contain benzoquinone) plus this self-anointment behavior and the actual ingestion of the insect result in a detoxification that is actually good to get rid of the parasites.

What lemurs do is that during foraging they grab millipedes and start to chew them, during this grab-chew-hand change process they rub their tails and perianal area to make sure the secretions get in contact with the affected area, and at the end, they get a nice healing snack.


Is parasitic infection a regular cause of Lemur’s depopulation?


Even though parasite infections are one of the many things that cause death in animal populations, the decrease in lemur populations is not specially linked to it. Other situations like habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, illegal pet trade, and unsustainable agricultural practices are the main reasons for lemur populations to decrease. Actually, Madagascar’s lemurs (in general) are the most threatened mammal group in the world (LaFleur et al., 2017; Crouse et al., 2015; Ralimanana et al., 2022).

LaFleur, M., Clarke, T. A., Reuter, K., & Schaeffer, T. (2017). Rapid Decrease in Populations of Wild Ring-Tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) in Madagascar, Folia Primatologica, 87(5), 320-330. doi:

Crouse, D., Richardson, Z., Jain, A., Tecot, S., Baden, A., & Jacobs, R. (2015). Lemur face recognition: tracking a threatened species and individuals with minimal impact. Michigan State University Technical Report 2015. MSU-CSE-15-8. 

Ralimanana, H., Perrigo, A. L., Smith, R. J., Borrell, J. S., Faurby, S., Rajaonah, M. T., … & Antonelli, A. (2022). Madagascar’s extraordinary biodiversity: Threats and opportunities. Science, 378(6623), eadf1466. DOI: 10.1126/science.adf1466 


What is the chemical interaction that happens in the Lemurs once they ingest these species?


These millipedes contain two main chemicals that can be the reason for the consumption by lemurs those being 2-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone, a compound with an odor similar to chlorine, bleach, or formaldehyde that can act as a repellent, and 2-methoxy-3-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone. 

Both these compounds are processed in the liver by two main pathways. The first pathway is the reduction of these molecules by NADPH quinone oxidoreductase, which inactivates those molecules. The second pathway involves redox cycling between two forms (benzoquinone and hydrobenzoquinones). In this biotransformation, an NADPH-cytochrome p450 reductase will take an electron from one of the oxygens bound to the ring, creating a superoxide anion, which is highly reactive towards proteins, lipids, and DNA. 

Once there is an imbalance between the production of these reactive oxygen species (ROS) and detoxification, ROS accumulates oxidative stress that may lead to cell death. (Dandawate et al. 2010; Jisook 2013; Meredith 2016). 

The ad hoc nature of this behavior and these detoxification processes is sufficient to reduce the toxicity at the lemur organism level. Thus, these bioaccumulation processes should affect the growth of individual gastrointestinal parasites. Additionally, benzoquinone secretions of millipedes exhibit antimicrobial activities, inhibiting several bacterial species isolated from fecal cultures of wild Eulemur species. (Pseudomonas, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, Bacillus and Klebsiella pneumoniae; Junge 2006; Junge et al. 2008; Billah et al. 2015; Stanković et al. 2016). 

For this reason, there is a hypothesis that lemurs ingest these millipedes and their secretions as self-medication, providing therapeutic effects against gastrointestinal parasites. 


What is the cause of the toxicity of these millipedes?


Secretions of these millipedes have several alkaloids. Being spot on what causes these intoxications in the lemur metabolism would be difficult. However, certain chemicals could cause this intoxication by analyzing the historical use of certain substances.

One of the hypotheses would be the presence of Hydrogen Cyanide in the secretion of millipedes. In pharmacology, this compound has been used to treat people with cancer under the brand name Laetrile (also named Vitamin B-17) and Amygdalin. Once this compound is metabolized in the human body it is changed into cyanide. Creating the lead for our second hypothesis, the cyanide compound sodium nitroprusside. 

Despite being mainly used in clinical chemistry, these compounds have been used in emergency medical situations to produce a rapid decrease in blood pressure and as a vasodilator in vascular research, which can cause hallucinatory and delusional states. (Hallucinatory and delusional states in connection with blood pressure and EEG. T Miyakawa, I Shikai DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-1819.1979.tb00168.x)


Which behaviors do Lemurs present after their intoxication?


After the intoxication of the millipedes’ secretions ingestion, lemurs present an increase in salivation that also leads to a frenetic/euphoric rubbing of the saliva+millipede secretion into their perianal zone and fur, suggesting a trance state caused by the millipede secretion substances.

This can be observed in this video by BBC.


Why do these millipedes produce Hydrogen Cyanide?


In the animal kingdom, cyanogenesis is quite an unusual phenomenon, only happening in certain insects, millipedes, and centipedes. It’s their defensive strategy. These specimens produce HCN (Hydrocyanic or prussic acid) and store it to release it once they feel in danger.

The high toxicity of HCN requires chemical stabilization for storage and prevention of accidental self-poisoning. For that reason, only a few species are known to manage this stabilization. Hence, this phenomenon is exclusive to certain mandibulate arthropods that store HCN as cyanogenic glycosides, lipids, or cyanohydrins. 



After the conversation with Daniela, I’ve managed to have some clarity about the so-called “Lemurs getting high.”

To their knowledge, they are solemnly using a therapeutic tool for their gut microbiota and entering hallucinatory states accidentally. However, they seem to enjoy it and repeat this process hundreds, maybe thousands of times throughout their lives.

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