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Sexed to Death: Aussie Marsupials Get it on Until the Bitter End

posted: 06/02/15
by: Danny Clemens
Tasman Peninsula Dusky antechinus
Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum

The male Tasman Peninsula Dusky antechinus serves one purpose: sex. When the winter mating season rolls around, each male will copulate with as many ladies as he can get his paws on, hissing and chattering until the dirty deed is done. By the end of the small creature's 14-hour sexual benders, the testosterone in his body shoots through the roof, reaching lethal levels:

"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," explains Dr. Andrew Baker of the Queensland University of Technology, who penned a new study describing the fascinating marsupials.

The sexual "big bang" lifestyle is known as as semelparity, and has also been observed in many invertebrates, including insects, arachnids and octopi. It has only been observed in a few species of vertebrates, and is relatively rare amongst mammals.

For the antechinus population, the yearly testosterone overdose spells bad news for the long-term fate of the species: the population halves each year as the males go out in their sexual blaze of glory.

According to Baker's research, the species is already threatened by rampant habitat loss. Logging has destroyed much of the forest in which the antechinus lives, leaving only fragmented pockets of land suitable for the critters.

Baker and his team are now petitioning the Australian government to add the Tasman Peninsula Dusky antechinus (along with several of its marsupial relatives) to the state's federal threatened species list to encourage habitat conservation.

"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," added Baker.

Baker's study is published in the latest edition of the peer-reviewed journal Memoirs of the Queensland Museum - Nature.

Learn more about animal mating:

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