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Small Wonders

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Professor Peter Banks, from the University of Sydney’s School of Biological Sciences, uncovers the facts on a little known marsupial, the antechinus.
The antechinus is often confused with a mouse as it is about the same size as a pet mouse, weighing around 30-50gm. It is, in fact, a carnivorous marsupial and has persisted quite well since European settlement.  It is in the same taxonomic group as other carnivorous marsupials, like quolls, Tasmanian devils and thylacines and is the Australian equivalent of a shrew. It is a nocturnal insectivore but it also eats pollen nectar, playing a role in pollinating native plants, particularly banksias.  The antechinus is named after hedgehogs, the northern hemisphere having a whole group of animals that are insectivores. While hedgehogs do have spikes the name antechinus refers to their insectivorous lives. Some people call them marsupial mice but while they are marsupials they are nothing like mice.
They are ferocious killers of insects and small vertebrates like skinks (they have lots of cat-like sharp, pointy teeth) but they are easy to handle when trapped for research although they do like to run around. They have a very fast metabolism so they have to eat a lot.

They have an uncommon characteristic for mammals in that the males mate and then die. Mating is timed so that the young are born in spring. The males start to get reproductively active in late winter and when the females come into oestrus this triggers a frenetic mating frenzy for a week or so. Males gather and the females choose a male and mate for up to 13 hours. Then each pairs off with another and another and so on.
Such frenzied mating produces a build-up of stress hormones and all the males die within a few days.

The females then raise the young (up to 13 pups may be born) which must find their way to a nipple on the mother's abdomen to which to attach as there is no pouch like kangaroos have.
There are more young born than nipples so there is a race to find a spot to cling to. The young are carried around by the mother for many weeks and their combined size increasing sometimes to more than their mother’s. The stress of that means that two thirds of the mothers die, only a third breeding for a second year and only a third of those survivors breeding for a third time. 

Because the female has multiple partners her offspring will have different fathers, research done by Prof Diana Fisher at University of Queensland showing that this promiscuousness increases the survival chances of the offspring. 
Antechinuses have an amazing ability to climb, their claws grabbing onto surfaces allowing them to scamper up walls and to nest in trees. Indeed, by spending more time in trees they probably avoid predators on the ground. Snakes, goannas, quolls and owls are native predators. Foxes can’t seem to reach them but cats do.
Despite this, they are still reasonably common so their anti-predator strategy does work. 
Olfaction is used by many small animals that scamper about and the antechinus is no different. The males communicate by olfaction, individuals making scent marks that come from their urine and a chest gland, marks that become more prominent in the breeding season.
Antechinus have a diverse range of habitats. They can live in moist forests and dry forests, as well as woodland and heathland but they are more common in moister forests with dense understoreys. Its short-lived life and unusual mating habits make this Australian marsupial another small wonder.

Professor Peter Banks was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Dr Banks. Summary text by Victor Barry November 2015. Revisited December 2016.

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