A tiny, endangered marsupial literally dies for sex.
The male northern quoll — a carnivorous mammal the size of a small domestic cat — walks so far and sleeps so little in its desperate search for a female mate that it may cause its own early death, according to a study published Wednesday.
The quoll lives in parts of western and northern Australia and is known for its unusual mating habits. The males are so-called suicidal breeders who die after a single mating season, while the females live and breed for up to four years.
Now, new research from two Australian teams, at the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Queensland, has shed light on why that is.
The researchers fitted small 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 the behavior of males and females.
A machine-learning algorithm was then used to analyze more than 76 hours of recorded footage and predict quoll behavior over a 42-day period.
Their findings, published in the Royal Society Open Science, suggest males become so exhausted that they don’t find enough food or remain sufficiently alert to predators.
One male, dubbed Moimoi by researchers, walked 6.5 miles in one night in search of a mate — a distance equivalent to an average-sized human walking up to 15 miles, researchers said.
Joshua Gaschk, who led the study, said in a statement: “Sleep deprivation and associated symptoms for a longer duration would make recovery impossible and could explain the causes of death observed in males after the breeding season.
“They become easy prey, unable to avoid collisions with vehicles or simply dying 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 engage in reckless behavior.
To make finding a mate even trickier, male quolls’ appearance suffers and they attract a higher number of parasites due to a lack of grooming, the study found.
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.
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 come at a cost to their own bodies and long-term survival for their young. Normally, these costs are weighted equally throughout the life of the parents.
“Male suicidal breeders — which is a strategy among mammals that has evolved more than once in marsupials, but in no other group — have taken this compromise to the extreme, literally sacrificing everything for one breeding event,” he told NBC News via e-mail. email .
“‘Live fast, die young’ is certainly the way of things for these species. However, that maxim usually ends with ‘…and leave a good looking corpse.’ That certainly doesn’t happen here.”
During Ashby’s own 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 balding, covered in scabs, sores, ticks and other parasites — it’s clear their bodies are shutting down,” he said.
“It certainly makes sense that the effort they put into finding mates during that period would lead to a lack of sleep and less time to care for themselves in general, as this new study suggests,” he added. .
Christofer Clemente, one of the researchers behind the study, said the quoll’s future is threatened, but not by mating.
“Conservation status is: Endangered (population is declining) 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 marsupials in Australasia, such as opossums and Tasmanian Devils.
A cane toad weighing nearly 6 pounds was recently found in Northern Australia and named “Toadzilla”.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com