Meet the marsupials that mate themselves to death before they disappear

  Last updated May 15, 2018 at 10:03 am


Famous for their wild sex lives, two new antechinus species have been classified endangered.

The antechinus is renowned for its males which enter a mating frenzy that destroys their immune systems till they drop down dead.

“It is pretty rare to uncover new mammals in developed countries such as Australia. These two new species were discovered on misty mountain summits. They have likely retreated there as the climate has warmed, and there is now nowhere left for them to go,” says Dr Andrew Baker from QUT.

Endangered for now

Inclusion on the endangered species list will hopefully provide the black-tailed and silver-headed antechinus additional protection in their currently only known location in South Eastern Queensland.

“Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate anywhere on earth. We must take action, so I am pleased the Australian Government has approved this listing and enshrined the protection of the antechinus, and a range of other species, in federal legislation.”

“We can now turn the country’s attention to the important job of saving these threatened species. If we take immediate action, hopefully in time we will see the antechinus removed from the endangered list,” he said.

“We have also been working to locate the two species in new locations, using a detection dog. In our collaboration with Canines for Wildlife, last year a detection dog located the Black-tailed Dusky Antechinus in the Border Ranges where it hadn’t been seen since the late 1980s, despite more than a decade of trapping,” he said.

Suicidal sex life

In addition to the challenges posed by climate change, habitat loss and feral animals, the antechinus are also at risk from themselves. Each year when the species mate, the males fight ferociously for sex – and then drop dead.

“These small marsupials have certainly courted a lot of attention for their mating habits. They are quite unique from that perspective, and we have been very fortunate to be able to capture some incredible vision of them in the wild,” Dr Baker said.

Over the course of their brief two week mating season, which might contain marathon mating sessions lasting several hours, males experience escalating stress hormones that result in their immune systems collapsing mass death after mating.  This strange sex life is driven by sperm competition, a form of sexual selection.

How to tell an antechinus from a rodent

The Australian Museum has a handy guide to help you spot the difference between our native marsupials and common mice or rats.  While they might look superficially similar, there are their top tips for spotting the difference:

  • Front teeth: Rodents have one pair of distinctive chisel shaped incisors that have hard yellow enamel on the front surfaces. They also have have four rows of small sharp incisors

  • Ears: Many antechinus species have large thin crinkly ears that have a notch in the margin, although not all will have this notch

  • Tail: Antechinuses have a sparsely haired tail, which is the same length as the body or shorter (65-110mm)

  • Habitats: Antechinuses are mainly nocturnal insect eaters, which are found in forest habitats and are not found often in urban areas. They shelter in spherical nests in hollow logs or crevices, but can sometimes found nesting in furniture in bush areas or farms

Antechinus are one of the world’s ‘vanishing species’ that will feature in a new book by Dr Baker and the University of Sydney’s Professor Chris Dickman, called the Secret Lives of Carnivorous Marsupials.

Secret Lives of Carnivorous Marsupials is currently available for pre-order from CSIRO Publishing.

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Lisa Bailey

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