(ORDO NEWS) — Researchers at the Yellowstone Resource Center have found that the feline parasite Toxoplasma can infect wolves, making them bolder and increasing the animal’s chances of becoming pack leader.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic protozoan that can infect almost any warm-blooded animal. Previous studies have shown that people infected with Toxoplasma can make riskier decisions, and animals can lose their fear of predators.
For 26 years, researchers have observed wolves living in the Yellowstone Preserve in areas where they can cross paths with cougars.
The entire feline family is the main host of Toxoplasma. As expected, in those parts of the reserve where the density of cougars was higher, wolves were more likely to be infected with Toxoplasma.
In previously healthy individuals, infection led to an increase in dopamine and testosterone levels. It also increased the likelihood that the wolves were more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as migrating and fighting for power over the pack.
A study of the biomaterial of wolves showed that wolves infected with Toxoplasma migrated 11.69 times more often and 46.06 times more often came into conflict with the current leader of the pack.
The researchers suggest that infected leaders may even affect uninfected wolves. Pack members may mimic the boldness or curiosity of their leader. Ultimately, wolves appear to be dead-end hosts for Toxoplasma, as they are unlikely to transmit the parasite to cougars.
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