Gorillas and People Can Get Scurvy, Rats Can’t

All Species’ Nutritional Needs Are Not Created Equal

Back in the Age of Explo­ration, the sailors on long sea voy­ages often died of scurvy. Yet the rats on the ship stayed per­fect­ly healthy. So did the ship’s cat. The sailors quick­ly recov­ered their health if they could get some fresh fruit or veg­eta­bles to eat. The hard part was find­ing some form of fresh fruit or veg­etable that could be stored on board with­out spoil­ing. Even­tu­al­ly, the British Roy­al Navy fig­ured out that cit­rus fruit worked well, which is why British sailors came to be called “limeys.” Bean sprouts or alfal­fa sprouts would also have worked, but nobody thought to try them.

The mys­tery of why peo­ple can get scurvy, and rats can’t, wasn’t solved until the 20th cen­tu­ry, with the dis­cov­ery of vit­a­min C, which is found in fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles but not in the bread (“hard­tack”) that the sailors were being fed. Human beings, along with goril­las and oth­er apes and mon­keys, have lost the abil­i­ty to make their own vit­a­min C. Guinea pigs have the same prob­lem. In nature, pri­mates and guinea pigs rarely get scurvy, because their nat­ur­al diet includes plen­ty of fresh plant mate­r­i­al.

Although rats need to have vit­a­min C in their bod­ies, they can make their own sup­ply. They don’t have to get it from their food, as peo­ple, oth­er pri­mates, and guinea pigs must. That’s why vit­a­min C is con­sid­ered to be an essen­tial nutri­ent for human beings—and for gorillas—but not for rats.