Parasitic infection increases risk-taking in a social, intermediate host carnivore
November 30, 2022
Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite capable of infecting any warm-blooded species and can increase risk-taking in intermediate hosts. Despite extensive laboratory research on the effects of T. gondii infection on behaviour, little is understood about the effects of toxoplasmosis on wild intermediate host behavior. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA, has a diverse carnivore community including gray wolves (Canis lupus) and cougars (Puma concolor), intermediate and definitive hosts of T. gondii, respectively. Here, we used 26 years of wolf behavioural, spatial, and serological data to show that wolf territory overlap with areas of high cougar density was an important predictor of infection. In addition, seropositive wolves were more likely to make high-risk decisions such as dispersing and becoming a pack leader, both factors critical to individual fitness and wolf vital rates. Due to the social hierarchy within a wolf pack, we hypothesize that the behavioural effects of toxoplasmosis may create a feedback loop that increases spatial overlap and disease transmission between wolves and cougars. These findings demonstrate that parasites have important implications for intermediate hosts, beyond acute infections, through behavioural impacts. Particularly in a social species, these impacts can surge beyond individuals to affect groups, populations, and even ecosystem processes.
Author(s): Connor J. Meyer, Kira A. Cassidy, Erin E. Stahler, Ellen E. Brandell, Colby B. Anton, Daniel R. Stahler & Douglas W. Smith