Feline parasite makes little hyenas too daring


Unicellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii known for changing the behavior of its owners. More precisely, one of the owners, which she has two, a cat and some kind of rodent. In a cat, Toxoplasma reproduces sexually, then comes out and gets into a mouse or rat, in which it reproduces asexually. Then the parasite needs a cat again, otherwise it will end up in eternal confinement in a rodent. And here the most interesting thing begins: usually rats and mice of cats are wary, but Toxoplasma changes the biochemistry of the brain so that rodents are attracted by the cat smell, and now they do not run away, for example, from the smell of cat urine, but are actively looking for where it smells. That is, lunch literally goes to the cat’s mouth, and the parasite gets where it needs to be.

In fact, Toxoplasma relieves rodents not only of fear of cats, but of fear in general. Toxoplasma mice tend to explore everything that gets in their way, and are equally interested in cat scent and guinea pig scent.

Staff University of Colorado Boulder write to Nature Communicationsthat Toxoplasma acts in exactly the same way on baby spotted hyenas. The fact is that it lives not only in domestic cats and small rodents – Toxoplasma can infect other animals as well. It gets to hyenas together with the meat of infected animals, along with water, or simply from the soil, when the hyena is cleaned of dirt. Researchers have been observing hyenas in their natural environment for many years, from time to time putting them to sleep in order to take blood for analysis – it turned out that 65% of hyenas have encountered Toxoplasma in one way or another.

If Toxoplasma gets to a hyena cub, which is not yet a year old, then such a cub will become too brave; he, for example, will become less afraid of lions. For baby hyenas, the biggest threat is lions, and it would be wiser for baby hyenas not to stray far from adults. Hyenas keep in large groups, and at the sight of a lion, both adults and small hyenas try not to go far from their comrades.

But Toxoplasma makes cubs fearless, and they behave in the presence of lions much bolder, approaching lions closer than cubs without Toxoplasma. Everything happens in the same way as in cats with mice, although hyenas, even cubs, are not mice at all. As a result, Toxoplasma hyenas are much more likely to die. It is quite possible that here the parasite is also trying to return to the main host, that is, to the representative of the Feline family.

It is curious that toxoplasma does not affect adult hyenas and adolescent hyenas who are one year old or more – they lead quite carefully next to lions, as it should be. Probably, life experience already plays a role here, or Toxoplasma has less effect on the brains of adult hyenas.

As we said, feline Toxoplasma can live in other mammals, and the question arises on whom else it can act in this way. It is known to cause toxoplasmosis in humans, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women and for people with weak immunity. But whether it affects our behavior is not yet entirely clear.

You can hear that she allegedly increases the craving for alcohol and suicidal thoughts, that she increases the likelihood of schizophrenia, that she is more likely to have an accident, that she increases aggressiveness, etc. However, this, apparently, is a fantasy: a few years ago we wrote that the danger of insanity from feline Toxoplasma is greatly exaggerated. But we also wrote about another work published three years ago in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: it argued that people with Toxoplasma inside are more likely to start their own business. If so, then this is, of course, a much more harmless effect than schizophrenia or alcohol cravings.


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