My husband calls it Scientific Trivial Pursuit, my penchant for soaking up science tidbits as if my brain were a black hole and these nougats of knowledge were . . . well, anything within a few thousand light years.
So when a Facebook friend posted a popular media article about how a single-celled parasite finds its way into rats’ brains and reprograms the rodents to be attracted to cats, their natural enemy, (Dat da-ta-da!), the Science Trivial Pursuit Queen, was able to put doubting friends at ease.
It’s true, I told them. Well, at least it’s been in science literature for years, which makes it as nearly true as anything else in this vast and fascinating world, if you ask me.
You’ll find the short version of this story in this Scientific American podcast transcript - Toxoplasma Infected Rats Love their Enemies - but just Google it and you’ll find other references.
So why would Toxoplasma gondii care whether rats love or fear cats? Here’s the scientific theory.
Toxoplasma needs to reproduce in a cat’s intestines. In order to get themselves into cat intestines, the parasite first infects one of the cat’s favorite foods - rats. Then, in some as yet unknown way, Toxoplasma slithers up into the rat’s brain and convinces the rodent to cozy up with all the friendly neighborhood cats. The rest is Natural History!
Wow! Is that cool or what?
I’m going with “What!” It’s darned scary. Some little microscopic organism can gain control of an animal and get it to do things that go totally against its nature That's mind control!
Wanna’ hear more?
So, all the little Toxoplasma babies that were created in the cat’s intestines get pooped out in the cat’s feces. This is Toxoplasma’s effort to get back into rats and start that miraculous circle-of-life thing all over again.
If you’ve read this far, you are probably a bit of a science junkie yourself. (Sorry. Hope this doesn’t come as a shock.) You may even recognize the name Toxoplasma as the reason pregnant women aren’t supposed to clean litter boxes.
Yes, Toxoplasma is the parasite pregnant women are avoiding. Toxoplasma infects humans, too!
(Insert bloodcurdling scream.)
Makes you wonder, huh? Does Toxoplasma perform its mind control feats on humans? Are we, like rats, manipulated into doing things that go against our nature because some parasite has control of our brain?
Does all of this sound a little like Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, where an STD turns people into vampires?
Uh, hang on. Gotta's stop for today. Kitty-Pooky-Heart is hungry and I’m all out of organic salmon. She likes only the kind from the farmer’s market two hours away, but it’s worth the drive because I just wov her so much! (Translation - Must keep cat-intestine-incubator healthy for maximum toxoplasma spread. Getting Car keys.)
While I’m gone, please leave a comment and let me know what you think. Or think you think.