Monday, June 15, 2015

Loving to Death

The brown antechinus may look like a
mouse - but that is where the similarities
end. Photo by Glen Fergus at Wikimedia.
Although most animal species breed multiple times throughout their lives, a few oddballs put everything they've got into a single reproductive season, after which they promptly die. This is a rare strategy (for obvious reasons), especially in mammals. One Australian mammal, the brown antechinus, is just odd enough to pull it off.

The brown antechinus is a small insectivorous mouse-sized critter from Australia that in fact is not a mouse at all. It is a marsupial; but unlike kangaroos and koalas, females do not carry their young in a pouch, but rather let them hang off their eight teats for four months. All males die when they are 11 months old (if not sooner) after a single 2-3 week long mating season during which they do little else than mate as often as possible. The mating season leaves all the males (whether mated or not) sterile, coursing with stress hormones, immunosuppressed, and riddled with microorganisms and parasites. Shortly thereafter all the males die, balding and bleeding messes.

The reproductive strategy of putting everything you've got into a single mating season and then dying is only an advantage if you can have many offspring in that single reproductive event. Male brown antechinuses can only succeed in this suicidal mating strategy if they father many of the young of many of the females. As a result, both male and female brown antechinuses are promiscuous (mate with many individuals).

Male brown antechinuses are generally bigger than females, and DNA testing has shown us that in the wild, larger males and males with bigger testes impregnate the most females. Diana Fisher and Andrew Cockburn from Australian National University tested whether larger male brown antechinuses were more likely to get the girls because females were more likely to choose them or because they were outcompeting other males.

Diana and Andrew trapped brown antechinuses and brought them into the lab. In one test, they placed three males in separate nest boxes next to one another in an arena and allowed females to choose among them and mate with whichever one she chose. Surprisingly, when presented with this choice, females did not consistently choose the largest males. They didn't even check them all out - The females mated with whatever male happened to be in the first nest box she entered.

When the researchers put three males into a single nest box and allowed the females to mate, she almost always immediately mated with one of the three males. The next day, the researchers put the female in a nest box with either the two losers from the day before or with two randomly chosen males she did not know. On this second day, females presented with two strangers immediately mated with one male, whereas females presented with the two losers from the day before were more likely to spend more time evading both males, but often eventually mated with one of them. On the third day, the researchers put the female in a nest box with either the loser from the previous two days or with another randomly chosen stranger. Nine out of ten females paired with a stranger mated with him on this third day, whereas only one female paired with a double-loser was willing to mate with him at all. Males that successfully mated on the first day were generally the largest of the three. Loser males that mated on the second day were generally the second-largest and unsuccessful males were generally the smallest.

Interestingly, when given a choice of males one at a time, female brown antechinuses do not seem to care at all about male size. But when males are directly competing with one another, the largest male seems to get the girl. It appears that body size plays a role in the dominance interactions among the males, and that females are paying attention to how the males relate to one another. Additionally, larger males that were more successful in mating also lived longer and had fewer parasites. This could be because it is more stressful to be a loser than to be a winner. Stress increases the production of stress hormones, which in turn reduces immune function. In all of these ways, bigger males are more likely to father more young, who in turn will be more likely to grow up to be big males too... but not for long...

Want to know more? Check these out:

Fisher, D., & Cockburn, A. (2005). The large-male advantage in brown antechinuses: female choice, male dominance, and delayed male death Behavioral Ecology, 17 (2), 164-171 DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arj012

Doing it to death: suicidal sex in "marsupial mice" at The Conversation

No comments:

Post a Comment