Pack of Wolves

Parasites influence wolf-pack dynamics at Yellowstone National Park through mind control

Wolves live in packs and are family animals. They have a matriarch, and mate and they lead their pack. Some wolves live with their pack all their lives and help to raise their pups, just like aunts or uncles. Others split off to start their packs and find mates.

These behaviors are influenced by many factors, including personality traits and family relationships. However, new scientific findings reveal a surprising influence on wolf-pack dynamics: A mind-controlling parasite makes gray wolves engage in more risky behavior.

Researchers discovered that gray wolves living in Yellowstone National Park were more likely than others to be infected by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that causes them to lose their pack or become the leader of their pack.

These shocking revelations could alter scientists’ understanding of the wolf-pack dynamics, and help conservation efforts for this apex predator that plays an important role in maintaining the mountain ecosystem’s health.

Crossfire in biochemical science

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that can be caused by T. gondii. If you have ever owned a cat you will likely have heard about it. T. gondii’s life cycle is tightly intertwined with cats. Cat guts have an excessive amount of an acid required by T. gondii to reproduce. Parasites can reproduce in cats’ intestines. The cat then sheds their oocysts, which are single cells that look a lot like eggs.

Other mammals and birds can also become infected if they ingest or drink contaminated food or drinks. T. gondii can’t reproduce in other animals’ stomachs, so the parasite must return to the cat family.

The parasites infect the intermediate host’s brain, and muscle tissue, and alter its behavior to increase its chances of being eaten by a cat. Researchers are still trying to understand the mechanism, but rodent studies show that mice infected by T. gondii tend to be less afraid of cats. They also seem to avoid the smell of cat urine. These mice are a delight for cats and make a great meal.

T. gondii’s evolutionary survival is best for cats and their prey. However, other animals may be affected by the biochemical crossfire. This can lead to similar behavior-altering effects. T. gondii can also affect humans. T. gondii infection may cause behavioral changes such as increased risk-taking in business, road rage, and schizophrenia. A new study published in Communications Biology shows the first evidence of T.gondii’s effects on gray wolves.

Infected animals can be dangerous

Since 1995, scientists have been keeping an eye on the wolves of Yellowstone National Park. The behavior of the pack is monitored via plane flyovers and trail cameras. About 25% of the wolves are fitted with radio tracking collars and have blood tests. The tests showed that some wolves have T. gondii infection, probably due to sharing a habitat with cougars.

Researchers noticed T. gondii’s presence, which caught the attention of Meyer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana’s Ungulate Ecology Lab. Meyer explained that T. gondii can influence animals’ tendency to take risky actions. He and his co-authors decided to focus on wolves being bold and asked themselves: “What behaviors are we able to measure?” Meyer also said, “What behaviors have we measured over 25 years? Then, which behaviors are considered risky?

The risk of being separated from its family by a wolf means that it is in danger. Researchers looked at a quarter century of records on wolf dispersal and leadership as well as blood test results from all the wolves involved in the study.

The shocking finding of the study team was that a wolf positive for too was 11 times more likely to be dispersed than a wolf negative. Kira Cassidy, a wildlife biologist at the Yellowstone Wolf Project, and co-lead author of this study, said that a wolf positive for too is 11 times more likely to become a pack leader. The impact of becoming a leader in the pack was even greater: A positive wolf was 46 times more likely than a negative wolf to be a leader.

Conservation and distribution of wolf-packs

Researchers suspect that T. gondii may be responsible for the behavior patterns observed in other animals. Meyer stated that they believe there may be a link between toxic and boldness, which could lead to wolves being more willing and able to travel to another wolf territory to be killed.

Christina Hansen Wheat, a Stockholm University behavioral ecologist, stated that she is excited to see the team continue their explorations.

Hansen Wheat, who wasn’t involved in the study, said that “One thing that I would like to ask is, how does this parasite affect other behaviors?” While she noted that wolves might leave their pack due to boldness, Hansen Wheat wondered if there were other behavioral patterns, such as aggression, that might lead them to be “actively expelled”.

Although T. gondii may not be returned to its feline host by wolves infected, the parasite could play an important role in the lives and well-being of wolf populations. Hansen Wheat stated that it is possible to better understand how wolves interact and disperse with one another, as well as under the influence of mind-controlling parasites.

She stated that “the more we know about wolf behavior the better we can conserve the species.”

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