A Mind-Controlling Parasite Is Making Yellowstone Wolves Foolhardy
When a common parasite infects wolves, it changes their behavior and turns them into risk-taking animals that could help them become leaders of their pack—or get them killed. A new study published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology found that a wolf infected by Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite that invades warm-blooded animals, was over 46 times more likely to take over its pack’s leadership than an uninfected wolf, thanks to the parasite’s ability to induce more risk-taking behavior.
“We focus so much on vertebrate dynamics—wolves and elk, and how they affect each other—and for a long time, it seems like we have generally ignored the fact that parasites might play a role in those relationships,” Connor Meyer, an ecology researcher at the University of Montana and the lead author of the new study, told The Daily Beast. “With something like Toxo, it seems like we should be giving parasites a little more credit.”
Host behavior modification—the buttoned-up, scientific way of saying “mind control”—is a common yet devious tactic that infectious diseases have evolved over time. Just look at “zombie ants,” which either describes ants infected with a fungus that takes over their brains; or a parasitic worm that causes ants to walk up blades of grass and lock their jaws, increasing the chance that a cow consumes them. Elsewhere in nature, parasitic worms can also zombify snails and cause their eye stalks to take on the appearance of maggots, which predacious birds find appealing.