A Mind-Controlling Parasite Is Making Yellowstone Wolves Foolhardy

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When a common parasite infects wolves, it changes their behavior and turns them into risk-taking animals that could help them become leaders of their pack - or could kill them.
A new study published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology found that a wolf infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that afflicts warm-blooded animals, was over 46 times more likely to take charge of its pack than an uninfected wolf, the parasite's ability to induce riskier behavior.
"We're so focused on the dynamics of vertebrates - wolves and moose and how they affect each other - and for a long time it seems like we've generally ignored the fact that parasites might play a role in these relationships," says Connor Meyer, an ecology researcher at the University of Montana and lead author of the new study, told The Daily Beast. "With something like Toxo, it seems like we should give parasites a little more credit."
Host behavior modification — the buttoned-up, scientific way of saying “mind control” — is a common but sneaky tactic that infectious diseases have evolved over time. Just look at “zombie ants” which either describes ants infected with a fungus that is taking over their brains; or a parasitic worm that causes ants to walk onto blades of grass and lock their jaws, making a cow more likely to consume them. Elsewhere in nature, parasitic worms can also zombify snails and cause their eyestalks to take on the appearance of maggots, which birds of prey find appealing.
A change in behavior that results in a host being eaten by a predator usually means that the underlying parasite infects multiple host species throughout its life cycle, and the same is true for Toxoplasma.
The parasite can infect many different species, including humans - which is why pregnant women are advised not to scoop the kitty litter. Some research suggests that toxoplasmosis could change our behavior by increasing hormones like dopamine and testosterone, but the only known host that allows it to reproduce sexually is the feline family, which includes domestic cats — which means Having a house cat increases the chances that you could have toxoplasma floating around in your body. And once the parasite is there, it can stay for life, although people rarely show symptoms after the acute phase of infection.
But the dopamine and testosterone spikes caused by Toxoplasma are particularly important in other intermediate host species because they can produce a phenomenon that scientists really call "deadly attraction." Animals infected with Toxoplasma, such as rats and hyenas, become bolder around cats, increasing the likelihood that they will be eaten and the parasite can multiply.
In other words, it appears that the parasite is attempting to place its intermediate host in more dangerous positions where it is likely to be snatched up by a potential true host.
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In Yellowstone National Park, how Toxoplasma spread to wolves has been a mystery since they had to ingest a form of the parasite called the oocyst, transmitted from a cat, in order to become infected. That is, until Meyer made the connection that one type of big cat roams the park: cougars. He and his co-authors believe that one aspect of wolves' relationship with these cougars may look very similar to a dog's relationship with a cat.
"Some dogs really like to raid the litter box if you can't get there fast enough," he said. "We would expect wolves to be very similar, where if they encounter cougar droppings in the landscape, they're very good at eating it and becoming infected that way."
For the study, Meyer and his team tested blood samples from 62 different cougars and 229 wolves that lived in Yellowstone between 1995 and 2020. The highest proportions of infected wolves occurred in areas with high puma overlap, consistent with Meyer's predictions.
The wolves' infection status was also recorded along with their observed behavior, e.g. B. Becoming the leader of a pack or leaving the pack.
The team found that wolves infected with Toxoplasma were more likely to become pack leaders and leave the pack earlier, on average, than uninfected wolves — an apparent contradiction that could be interpreted as the parasite increasing risk-taking and aggressive behavior across the board , Meyer said.
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But changing host behavior isn't all bad. Becoming the pack leader has a distinct advantage for wolves: "Leaders become breeders" is the saying when it comes to the dominant male and female in a pack, Meyer said. Although the wolves are unlikely to be able to pass the parasite on to their offspring, they can teach the pack to engage in riskier behaviors and spend more time around cougars, resulting in other members catching the infection.
Researching this insane example of mind control can have lasting implications when it comes to overseeing the careful balance of Yellowstone's ecosystem. The reintroduction of wolves to the park is "one of the biggest conservation success stories in North America," Meyer said, and understanding the behavior of infected wolves can inform continued conservation of the animals. A tiny parasite that can affect an entire ecosystem - proving that size doesn't matter.
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