A well-known parasite’s mind-altering effects may apply to more species than previously thought. Yellowstone scientists argue that Toxoplasma gondii infection can affect the behavior of grey wolves in the area in new research published this month. It appears to increase their likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, such as leaving their packs or becoming pack leaders.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic single-celled protozoan. It must finally infect members of the cat family to finish its complex life cycle and reproduce. T. gondii is thought to do this by altering the behavior of infected rodents—a common intermediate host. Rodents infected with T. gondii become less wary of cat urine and less terrified of predators in general, making them more vulnerable.
These infections appear to cause acute illness only infrequently, however, the cysts themselves can live in the body for an entire life. According to some studies, this infection may have subtle behavioral or neurological effects in non-rodent animals too.
These infected wolves may become more daring and contribute their packs into cougar territory, letting the parasites infect additional wolves. According to the researchers, this feedback loop generates a positive feedback loop.
According to one study, T. gondii infection makes wolves bolder but more likely to be eaten by lions. The results were published in Communications Biology this month, but more research is needed before they can be believed to be correct. It’s unclear how the virus might affect wolf behavior, but the authors speculate that it might increase testosterone levels.
“It is critical to understand the effects of parasites on individuals, groups, populations, and ecological processes that the implications of parasite infections are incorporated into future wildlife research,” the authors wrote.