A team of researchers from the Yellowstone Wolf Project at the Yellowstone Center for Resources in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, found that wolves in the park that are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a common parasite, are much more likely to become leaders of their pack. In their study, reported in the journal Communications Biologythe group analyzed data from studies of wolves in the park over a 26-year period.
T. gondii is an obligate parasite that infects protozoa in the cells of infected animals. These infections are known as toxoplasmosis and occur in almost all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Previous research has shown that in most cases the symptoms are few, but some evidence suggests they may lead to an increase in erratic or aggressive behaviors.
In this new effort, the researchers wondered what kind of impact T. gondii infections might have on wild wolves. To find out, they conducted an in-depth study of wolves living in Yellowstone National Park.
The work involved studying data from blood samples taken from more than 200 wolves living in the park during the years 1995-2020, while looking for evidence of infection. The researchers also looked at notes taken by research observers to learn more about any behavioral changes that might have been evident in the wolves.
The researchers found that infected young wolves tended to leave their pack earlier than uninfected ones. Infected males were 50% more likely to leave their pack as early as six months after birth. Males normally remain for up to 21 months. And infected females were 25% more likely to leave their pack at 30 months, rather than 48 months.
The researchers also found that infected males were more than 46 times more likely to become pack leaders than uninfected males. The researchers also found that infection rates were higher in wolves that mingled with cougars. The researchers suggest the behavioral differences were likely due to the parasite’s impact on the wolves’ brains, making them bolder and less likely to back down when challenged by others.
Connor J. Meyer et al, Parasite infection increases risk taking in a carnivore intermediate social host, Communications Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-04122-0
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