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[Animal] A parasite affects the brains of wolves in Yellowstone Park, changing their pack behavior


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lobos parásitos toxoplasmosis

Wolves are animals that live in packs of family groups led by a matriarch and her mate. Some wolves stay with their pack for life, helping to hunt and raise the pups as aunts and uncles as they mature, but others separate to find mates and create packs of their own.

There are many factors that influence this type of behavior, such as personality quirks and family relationships established when they are puppies. But new scientific findings reveal a surprising influence on wolf pack dynamics: a mind-controlling parasite that causes gray wolves to engage in more risky behavior.

The researchers found that gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park infected with a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii were more likely to leave the wolf pack they were born into or become pack leaders.

The startling revelations could change scientists' understanding of wolf pack dynamics and improve conservation efforts for an alpha predator that plays an important role in the health of its mountain ecosystem.

Toxoplasmosis, caused by the T. gondii parasite, is best known as an infection in cats, but it also affects wolves and could be changing their behavior. A pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: Kira Cassidy/NPS)


If you've ever owned a cat, you've probably heard of toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by T. gondii, a single-celled parasite. Their life cycle is closely linked to cats: due to unique enzymatic activity, cat intestines contain an excess of an acid that T. gondii needs to reproduce. The parasites reproduce in cats' intestines, and cats then shed parasite oocytes (individual cells that are sorts of eggs) in their feces.

When other mammals or birds eat or drink something contaminated by these resistant oocytes, they also become infected. But the intestines of other animals don't have the linoleic acid content that T. gondii needs to reproduce, so the parasite has to find its way back to a member of the cat family.



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