Wolves are more likely to become pack leaders if they have a parasite.


Some wolves may be motivated to lead or go alone by a parasite.

Toxoplasma gondii-infected wolves in Yellowstone National Park behave more recklessly than uninfected counterparts, according to study published in Communications Biology on November 24. Due to their increased risk-taking, the wolves are more likely to break away from the pack or establish their own leadership.

According to Connor Meyer, a field biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, "there are two options that might tremendously help wolves, or potentially lead wolves to perish." The results demonstrate the parasite's strong capacity to affect a wolf's social destiny.

According to Meyer, disease is frequently seen as beneficial for animals, particularly in the context of destroying its host.

ingle-celled There is evidence that T. gondii can change animal behaviour. Cats are its most significant hosts because the parasite can grow and reproduce in their tiny gut. The parasite's progeny travel in the excrement of cats. The parasite is subsequently consumed by other animals, which causes the parasite to alter specific hormones and change the behaviour of its new hosts by making them braver or more aggressive. For instance, infected mice may fatally lose their fear of cats, making it possible for the parasite to infect additional hosts after the mice have been eaten.

In 1995, wolves were once again brought to Yellowstone. The researchers had access to around 26 years' worth of blood samples, behavioural observations, and movement data for 229 of the park's wolves because of ongoing studies on the packs in the park.

The scientists looked for antibodies against T. gondii parasites in the wolf blood, which indicate an infection. The researchers also recorded which wolves left their pack, which is typically made up of a breeding pair and their young, or rose to the position of pack leader.

Both are risky actions for a wolf, according to Meyer.

The study discovered that infected wolves were around 46 times more likely to eventually become pack leaders and were 11 times more likely to leave their pack than noninfected wolves.

According to Ajai Vyas, a neurobiologist from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who was not involved with the study, the research closes a critical knowledge gap about Toxoplasma.

The majority of the previous work, according to Vyas, was completed in labs. However, there are drawbacks to such strategy, particularly in terms of simulating how the infection affects animals in the wild. It "becomes almost like researching whale swimming behaviour in home pools; [it] does not function very well," according to the researcher.


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