Two species of antechinuses, a group of mouse-like marsupials with arguably the weirdest sex lives of any mammals, have just been classified as endangered, just five years after their discovery.
In 2013, Dr Andrew Baker of the Queensland University of Technology discovered two new species, the black-tailed dusky antechinus and the silver-headed antechinus. “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,” Baker said in a statement.
“Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate anywhere on earth,” Baker added, but he hopes the Australian Government's decision this week to classify the pair as officially endangered will help.
Antechinuses (pronounced anti-kinus for anyone struggling) have achieved cult status for their sexual behavior. Most animals take risks for sex, but some make the process of getting laid so arduous it is universally fatal. Salmon and spiders are both examples but among mammals, it is restricted to the Phascogalini, including antechinuses and tuans (basically larger antechinuses with delightfully silly tails).
Come mating season, the males abandon eating and sleeping for a 24/7 quest for sex, which then lasts for hours. Eventually, all this chasing, and the energy required for the act itself, takes a toll and the males die, sometimes of total organ failure. In most species of phascogales, by the end of the mating season, there are no males left – just a lot of pregnant females.
This might not seem like the smartest of survival strategies but all but one of the 15 known antechinus species have adopted it – it seems a few hardy Antechinus swainsonni males survive to do it all again the following year. For millions of years it worked for them, that is until Europeans arrived on the continent, destroying their habitats, and bringing with them predators such as cats and foxes that not only love to eat them, but refuse to wait until late mating season to do so.
Baker co-discovered another two species in 2015, whose conservation status is currently undetermined. There are probably more members of the genus undiscovered, but Australia's miserly approach to funding taxonomy means we may not find them before they go extinct.
What is now recognized as the black-tailed dusky antechinus was first seen in the Border Ranges national park in the 1980s, but misidentified. Baker now has plans to seek it there, telling IFLScience the listing should put the plucky critters in line when threatened species funding is allocated. He hopes management plans will soon be put in place for the known colonies and the national parks in which they are found.