(CNN) – Wolves are pack animals, living in family groups led by a matriarch and her mate. Some wolves stay with their pack their whole lives, helping hunt and raise pups like aunts and uncles as they mature, but others split off to find a mate of their own and start their own packs.There are lots of factors that go into these types of behavior, such as quirks of personality and family relationships established as pups, but new scientific findings revealed a surprising influence on wolf-pack dynamics: a mind-controlling parasite that makes a gray wolf engage in riskier behavior.Researchers found that gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park infected with a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii were more likely to leave the group of wolves they were born into or become a pack leader.The startling revelations could change scientists’ understanding of wolf-pack dynamics and improve conservation efforts for an apex predator that plays a major role in the health of its mountain ecosystem. Biochemical crossfireIf you’ve ever owned a cat, chances are you’ve heard of toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by T.
gondii, a single-celled parasite. Its life cycle is closely entwined with cats — due to unique enzyme activity, cat guts contain an excess of an acid that T.
gondii needs in order to reproduce. The parasites reproduce in a cat’s intestines, and then the cat sheds the parasite’s oocysts (single cells that are sort of like eggs) in its feces.When other mammals or birds eat or drink something contaminated by those hardy oocysts, they become infected as well.
But other animals’ guts 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.The.