Sex drive and lack of sleep can kill endangered quolls

An endangered baby marsupial is dying for sex — literally.

The male northern quoll — a carnivorous mammal the size of a small house cat — walks so far and sleeps so little in its desperate search for a mate that it could result in its premature death, according to a study released Wednesday.

The quoll lives in parts of western and northern Australia and is known for its unusual mating habits. Males are so-called suicidal reproducers who die after only one mating season, while females continue to live and reproduce for up to four years.

Now new research by two Australian teams, at the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Queensland, has shed some light on why that might be.

Researchers fitted tiny backpacks with trackers to both male and female quolls on Groote Eylandt, a large island off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territories, and found striking differences in male and female behavior.

A machine learning algorithm was then used to analyze more than 76 hours of recorded footage and predict the behavior of the quolls over a 42-day period.

Their findings, published in the Royal Society Open Science, suggest that males become so exhausted that they can’t find enough food or watch out for predators sufficiently.

One male, whom the researchers named Moimoi, walked 6.5 miles in one night looking for a mate, a distance equivalent to an average-sized human walking up to 24 miles, the researchers said.

Joshua Gaschk, who led the study, said in a statement: “Sleep deprivation and associated symptoms for an extended duration would make recovery impossible and could explain the causes of deaths recorded in males after the breeding season.

“They become easy prey, are unable to avoid vehicle collisions, or simply die of exhaustion.”

The health risks of sleep deprivation in rodents are well documented, and the quolls the researchers studied were found to lose weight, become aggressive, and exhibit reckless behavior.

To make finding a mate even more of a challenge, male quolls’ appearance suffers and they attract more parasites due to lack of grooming, according to the study.

Several other animals, including some fish and insects, put all of their energy into just one breeding season — a process known as semelparity — but the quoll is the largest mammal known to do so.

Image: AUSTRALIA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL (Kaylah Del Simone / AFP - file Getty Images)

Image: AUSTRALIA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL (Kaylah Del Simone / AFP – file Getty Images)

Jack Ashby, deputy director of the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, England, and an expert on Australian mammals who was not involved in the quoll study, explained that all animals incur a cost to their bodies and long-term survival for produce their young. Normally these costs are weighted equally across the parents’ lifetime.

“Suicidal male reproducers — which is a mammalian strategy that has evolved more than once in marsupials, but in no other group — have taken this trade-off to the extreme, literally sacrificing everything for one reproductive event,” he told NBC News by email. .

“‘Live fast, die young’ is certainly the way of things for these species. However, that maxim typically ends, ‘…and leave a nice corpse.’ That’s definitely not what’s going on here.”

During Ashby’s fieldwork in the monsoon forests of northern Australia, he said he found male northern quolls near the end of their short breeding season. “They’re bald, covered in scabs, sores, ticks and other parasites—it’s clear their bodies are shutting down,” she said.

“It certainly makes sense that the efforts they made to find mates during that time would lead to a lack of sleep and less time to take care of themselves overall, as this new study suggests,” she added.

Christofer Clemente, one of the researchers behind the study, said the quoll’s future is under threat, but not because of mating.

“Its conservation status is: Endangered (declining population), mainly due to habitat loss, along with the introduction of invasive species such as dogs, cats, foxes and cane toads,” he said.

The team wants to continue their work and look at the effects of sleep deprivation in other marsupial mammals in Australasia, such as opossums and Tasmanian devils.

A cane toad weighing nearly 6 pounds was recently found in northern Australia and nicknamed “Toadzilla.”

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