Mind-Altering Parasites Are Making Wolves Ferocious Leaders

Wolves infected by a brain-altering parasite rise to the top of the pecking order.

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

One of the reasons that the Star Trek character Data (played by Brent Spiner) is so relatable is that he deeply loves his pet cat, Spot. And if you’re a cat lover, like everyone’s favorite android, you’re probably aware of the dangers of your cat getting infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. But it turns out that this parasite can infect wolves as well, and Science Alert reports that infected wolves are 46 times more likely to become the leaders of the pack, but this perk also comes with some serious mental and behavioral downsides.

Why would this special parasite make wolves likelier to become leaders? It all comes down to the fact that while this parasite can live in wolves and other warm-blooded hosts, it can only reproduce once it has infected a cat. Therefore, the parasites that infect other kinds of creatures are always trying to improve their odds of returning to getting back into a feline, and becoming a take-charge leader of the pack is just one way they try to accomplish this goal.

How does this infection actually turn the wolves into better leaders, though? The short answer is that the infection potentially increases testosterone levels, and that makes the infected wolves more aggressive than uninfected wolves. More testosterone leads to greater aggression and a greater need to assert dominance, resulting in these wolves ending up at the top of the pecking order more often than their uninfected counterparts.

Given Hollywood‘s emphasis on the idea of an “alpha male,” you might think it’s a good thing that these infected wolves are likelier to become the leaders of their packs. However, there are some unexpected downsides as well: half of the infected males ended up leaving their tribes within six months. Comparatively, uninfected wolves stick with their packs for an average of 21 months before leaving.

 Unfortunately, the infected wolves taking charge like this also leads to more of them getting infected. Pack leaders may demonstrate unexpected new behaviors, such as sniffing for cougar urine while exploring new territory. Such sniffing actually makes the wolves likelier to get infected by the parasite, and the more wolves who stop to take a whiff because they are copying their leader, the more wolves who end up infected.

To make matters worse, infected wolves who have become pack leaders are likelier to reproduce than uninfected wolves. This is bad because while the parasite can’t actually reproduce outside of feline bodies, it can be passed on from the mother wolf to her children, with the mother having gotten it from the pack leader. In this way, the number of infected wolves in nature, just like the number of unwanted Star Wars movies in theaters, is just going to keep increasing over time.

And this groundbreaking study of wolves infected by this parasite has some major implications for the rest of the scientific community. In this case, a heretofore understudied parasite ended up causing very dramatic changes within this local ecosystem. As much as modern science has emphasized the need to explore areas such as the Moon and Mars, this study is a reminder that we have plenty left to learn here on Earth.