Parasitology

Research Article

Effect of Toxoplasma gondii upon neophobic behaviour in wild brown rats, Rattus norvegicus

J. P. Webstera1, C. F. A. Bruntona1 and D. W. Macdonalda1

a1 Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS

SUMMARY

The effect of Toxoplasma gondii on neophobic behaviour (the avoidance of novel stimuli) was assessed in four groups of wild rats with naturally occurring Toxoplasma infection. Two groups were placed in individual cages and tested in a series of experiments which examined the effect of Toxoplasma on the rat's reaction to 3 food-related novel stimuli (odour, food- container, food). A trappability study was performed on the other two groups to test whether Toxoplasma had an effect on probability of capture. The results show that low neophobia was significantly associated with positive Toxoplasma titres in 3 out of 4 groups. We suggest that differences between infected and uninfected wild rats arise from pathological changes caused by Toxoplasma cysts in the brains of infected rats. Such behavioural changes may be selectively advantageous for the parasite as they may render Toxoplasma-infected rats more susceptible to predation by domestic cats (the definitive host of Toxoplasma) and, as a side-effect, more susceptible to trapping and poisoning during pest control programmes.

(Received October 11 1993)

(Revised December 01 1993)

(Accepted December 06 1993)

Key words

  • host–parasite interactions;
  • wild rats;
  • Toxoplasma gondii;
  • neophobic behaviour
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