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Tiny marsupials that practice ‘suicidal’ mating declared endangered

  • On May 11, the Australian government officially declared two species of recently described antechinuses, a mouse-like marsupial, as endangered.
  • The species are famed for their marathon mating sessions that leave the males so exhausted that they die.
  • Both species occur only in high-altitude forests, and are threatened by climate change, habitat loss and threats from feral cats, cattle and horses.

The antechinus is a strange little mouse-like creature that endures two to three weeks of marathon mating sessions that leave the male so exhausted that it ultimately dies.

But suicidal mating is not all that’s killing these animals. Habitat loss, climate change and threats from feral animals like cats, cattle and horses are driving two species of antechinus, both described only recently, to extinction. On May 11, the Australian government officially declared the silver-headed antechinus (Antechinus argentus) and the black-tailed dusky antechinus (Antechinus arktosendangered.

Both species live on remote mountaintops in Queensland, Australia. The silver-headed antechinus, first described in 2013, is known only from the forests of Kroombit Tops National Park in southeast Queensland and two other locations near the border of Queensland and New South Wales. The black-tailed dusky antechinus, described in 2014, is known from three isolated locations near the border of southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales.

Both species occur only in high-altitude forests and have reached their altitudinal limits within their known distribution, the Australian government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) wrote in the species’ assessments.

“It is pretty rare to uncover new mammals in developed countries such as Australia,” Andrew Baker of the Queensland University of Technology, whose team discovered the two species, said in a statement. “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.”

Andrew Baker with a black-tailed dusky antechinus. Image courtesy of Queensland University of Technology.

The habitat of the silver-headed antechinus is also threatened by cattle and horses that occur inside Kroombit Tops National Park and trample through ground cover that the species needs for foraging and denning. Predation by foxes and feral cats is another potential threat to the two antechinus species, the TSSC wrote.

“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,” Baker said.

Baker’s team is now trying to locate new populations of the two species by using detection dogs trained to sniff out the marsupials. Last year, one of the dogs located the black-tailed dusky antechinus inside Border Ranges National Park, on the eastern border between Queensland and New South Wales, Baker said. The species “hadn’t been seen [there] since the late 1980s, despite more than a decade of trapping,” he added.

Antechinuses, found in mainland Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, are famous for their sexual behavior that’s usually fatal for the males. Each year during the mating season, the male mates with as many females as he can, each sex session lasting up to 14 hours at a time. The process floods the male’s body with testosterone and stress hormones, eventually leading to internal bleeding and immune system failure. After a few weeks of these sexual encounters, the male antechinus dies.

“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,” Baker said.

“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 added.

The silver-headed antechinus occurs only on remote mountaintops in Queensland, Australia. Image by Gary Cranitch/Queensland Museum.