New, hairier species of ‘extreme-mating’ marsupial found in Australia

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A new species of antechinus has been discovered by scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia.

If the name sounds vaguely familiar, but you just can't place it, these tiny somewhat-mouse-like marsupials made headlines last October after researchers found that the males of these species have an extremely short life span. Before last year, it was thought that the males died off due to some kind of 'altruism' factor built into their genes, which had them die off to ensure that more resources are available for their young. However, researchers found that they were actually dying as a result of their extremely taxing mating season.

As the males try to pass on their sperm — which actually fight against the sperm of other males inside the female — to as many females as possible, they mate again and again, for extended periods of time.

"What they do is just competitively mate, so they mate for a very long time, like 12 to 14 hours, some of the species," said Dr. Diana Fisher, from the University of Queensland, according to Australia's ABC News. "They do it over and over and over — they're very promiscuous. There's this huge intense mating season going on for about two weeks."

These frenzied marathon mating sessions drain these little guys of every last ounce of vitality. Once they're done, they're finished. They've gone on for so long and put so much effort into it that their body actually breaks down their own muscle tissues for energy, and the stress hormones released cause their immune system to shuts down. Often the males die long before their offspring are born. The females, on the other hand, can live for two or three years.

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This new species, called the black-tailed antechinus, is characterized by some differences in colouration, specifically in their fur and that their feet and taile are black, instead of pink like for other species of antechinus. Also, they have a lot more hair on their body than other species, and some particularly long guard hairs. It was previously thought that these black-tailed antechinus were just an 'outlier' of another species known as the dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii), but the researchers found that the two species have "striking genetic differences." This earned the black-tailed variety their own species (Antechinus arktos), which is detailed in one of the latest issues of the journal Zootaxia.

Unfortunately, as seems to happen with newly-discovered species these days, even upon identifying them, researchers found the black-tailed antechinus population is already in decline. They're restricted to just one region of Australia, the Tweed Volcano Caldera, and the researchers believe that their habitat may be shrinking due to climate change.

(Photo courtesy: Gary Cranitch/Queensland Museum)

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