A new study led by the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Australia has found that male northern quolls – a species of endangered marsupials native to northern Australia – travel for long distances and deprive themselves from sleep during the breeding season, in a relentless search for mates. According to the experts, this extreme sex drive may be responsible for annual mass die-offs, further threatening the existence of this species.
The scientists used accelerometers contained in miniature backpacks to track a cohort of northern quolls during seven weeks of their breeding season on Groote Eylandt, an island off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory. The analysis revealed that male quolls rested for only about eight percent of this period, compared to females, which spent about three times as long (24 percent) resting. Moreover, some of the males traveled long distances in search of mates (over 10 kilometers, which translates to almost 40 kilometers in human distance, based on average stride length).
“They cover large distances to mate as often as possible and it seems that their drive is so strong that they forgo sleeping to spend more time searching for females,” said study senior author Christofer Clemente, an expert in Animal Ecophysiology at USC.
Along their journeys, male quolls also appeared to attract more parasites since they devoted less time to grooming, and they often became easier prey due to carelessness and inattention.
“Sleep deprivation, and associated symptoms for a prolonged duration would make recuperation impossible and could explain the causes of death recorded in the males after breeding season,” said study lead author Joshua Gaschk, a doctoral student at the same university. “They become easy prey, are unable to avoid vehicle collisions, or simply die from exhaustion.”
“By the end of the breeding season, these quolls just look terrible. They start to lose their fur, they start to not be able to groom themselves efficiently, they lose weight and […] they’re constantly fighting with each other as well,” Clemente added.
Further research is needed to clarify how sleep deprivation affects male quolls, as well as wider populations of marsupials from Australia and Papua New Guinea. “If male quolls forgo sleep to the detriment of their survival, northern quolls [will become] an excellent model species for the effects of sleep deprivation on body function,” Gaschk concluded.
The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
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