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Fatal Attraction: Meet the Marsupials that Literally Sex Themselves to Death

Jun 04, 2015 11:02 AM EDT
Tasman Peninsula Dusky Antechinus
Pictured: Tasman Peninsula Dusky Antechinus
(Photo : Queensland University of Technology)

Most animals will go to great lengths to find a mate and ensure their survival, but the fatal attraction between certain marsupials takes it too far, causing these species to literally sex themselves to death.

Scientists at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have discovered two more species of suicidally-sexed marsupials in Australia. One new species of Dusky Antechinus was discovered in remote, south-eastern Tasmania and another mainland form was raised to species status. These additions mean the team has now identified five new species of antechinus in the past three years alone - a 50 percent increase in diversity within this long-known genus of mammals.

However, the researchers believe three of the new antechinus are already destined for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with factors such as climate change, feral pests and habitat loss putting increased pressure on these marsupial populations.

"We discovered the Tasman Peninsula Dusky Antechinus not far from the old European settlement town of Port Arthur in Tasmania," Dr. Andrew Baker, a mammologist from QUT's Science and Engineering Faculty who led the study, said in a statement. "Most of its limited habitat falls within state forest, which is being logged. This species now apparently only lives in tiny, fragmented stands of intact forest that are under threat."

In addition, the Black-tailed and the Silver-headed Antechinus, which live on remote mountaintops spanning just a few miles in Queensland, may have the smallest natural habitat of any mammal in Australia. And soon they may have nowhere left to run as warming temperatures force them to higher and higher ground.

Pictured: Distribution of Dusky Antechinus.
(Photo : Chermundy/Wikimedia Commons) Pictured: Distribution of Dusky Antechinus.

And the violent mating rituals that these marsupial species undergo do not help their cause either. Every year, all antechinus males fight ferociously for sex - then die.

"The breeding period is basically two to three weeks of speed-mating, with testosterone-fuelled males coupling with as many females as possible, for up to 14 hours at a time," Baker explained. "Ultimately, the testosterone triggers a malfunction in the stress hormone shut-off switch; the resulting rise in stress hormones causes the males' immune systems to collapse and they all drop dead before the females give birth to a single baby."

These annual sexcapades are extremely detrimental to the species' survival, cutting each antechinus population in half, researchers say. While this means the mother marsupials have enough spiders and insects to go around and eat, it also means the next precious generation of their kind rests on their shoulders alone.

So while these latest species discoveries are exciting, it's also bittersweet knowing that while they were just found, soon they may become extinct.

"Uncovering new mammals in developed countries like Australia is pretty rare and the fact we've found even more antechinus species hints at the biodiversity jewels still waiting to be unearthed. It's a shame that mere moments after discovery, these little Tasmanian marsupials are threatened with extinction at human hands," he added.

Baker is currently applying to the Tasmanian Government for a threatened species listing for the Tasman Peninsula Dusky Antechinus. His team is also seeking to have all three threatened antechinus species added to Australia's federal threatened species list, which will help ensure their protection.

Their findings were published in the journal Memoirs of the Queensland Museum - Nature.

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