A recent study by the University of Montana has taken a turn into the world of Science Fiction, suggesting that a parasite has invaded the wolves of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park...and is controlling their minds. It sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an episode of The X-Files.

Well, not exactly. But, the single-celled organism called Toxoplasma gondii is nicknamed "the mind-control parasite." And yes, it influences its hosts' actions, including the wolves the organisms have invaded in Yellowstone.

The Mind-Control Parasite Invades Yellowstone Wolves

Before calling in Area 51 or Scully and Mulder, rest assured the mind-controlling parasite isn't out to rule the world. UofM student Connor Meyer worked with Yellowstone biologist Kira Cassidy to study the wolfpacks in the park in 2021. The study revealed that infected wolves become risk-takers.

What exactly does a risk-taking wolf do?

Meyer and Cassidy found that the infected wolves were more likely to leave their pack...and 46 times more likely to become the pack leader. According to the study, the parasite is known to boost two hormones in the body: dopamine, or the happy hormone, and testosterone, a.k.a, the aggression hormone.

How Are Yellowstone Wolves Getting Infected?

Typically, animals become infected by the parasite after eating infected meat. However, humans usually get infected by cleaning litterboxes. Yes, litterboxes. Cats are one of the primary sources of human exposure to mind-control parasites. And according to Meyer, that may be the case with the wolves of Yellowstone.

According to a recent release by UofM, Meyer and Cassidy believe the spread of the virus to wolves has something to do with outdoor litterboxes. The data indicated that infection levels were higher in wolves when they had ranged into areas with high mountain lion density. Meyer stated,

“Almost anyone who has a dog and cat at home knows that, if the dog gets an opportunity, they are going to raid the litter box. We don’t have direct evidence of wolves eating mountain lion scat, but we have lots of photos of wolves at mountain lion scrapes. Wolves eat lots of things, so we don’t think it’s much of a stretch."

If only we could train wolves not to rummage through mountain lion scat.

Are Infected Wolves a Threat to Humans?

Humans don't have much to worry about with toxoplasma gondii. Human immune systems can keep the parasite in check, though it can prove dangerous to the immune-compromised and unborn children - that's why pregnant women aren't supposed to clean out the litter box.

Several studies have found that creatures infected by the parasite are notably less fearful of usual threats. Therefore, infected wolves may be less afraid of humans. Long story short, it's best to keep your distance from the wolves of Yellowstone (but honestly, you should do that anyway.)

For more information on the study, click here.

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