From National Geographic:
Why A Little Mammal Has So Much Sex That It Disintegrates
by Ed Yong
It’s August in Australia, and a small, mouse-like creature called antechinus is busy killing himself through sex. He was a virgin until now, but for two to three weeks, this little lothario goes at it non-stop. He mates with as many females as he can, in violent, frenetic encounters that can each last up to 14 hours. He does little else.
A month ago, he irreversibly stopped making sperm, so he’s got all that he will ever have. This burst of speed-mating is his one chance to pass his genes on to the next generation, and he will die trying. He exhausts himself so thoroughly that his body starts to fall apart. His blood courses with testosterone and stress hormones. His fur falls off. He bleeds internally. His immune system fails to fight off incoming infections, and he becomes riddled with gangrene.
He’s a complete mess, but he’s still after sex. “By the end of the mating season, physically disintegrating males may run around frantically searching for last mating opportunities,” says Diana Fisher from the University of Queensland. “By that time, females are, not surprisingly, avoiding them.”
Soon, it’s all over. A few weeks shy of his first birthday, he is dead, along with every other male antechinus in the area.
It’s their diet that matters. These animals feed on insects, and some experience a glut of food once a year but very little at other times. This seasonality increases the further you get from the equator. The species with the most seasonal menus also had shorter breeding seasons, and their males were more likely to die after mating.
Fisher thinks that as the ancestors of antechinuses spread south through Australia and New Guinea, they encountered strong yearly fluctuations in their food supply. The females were better at raising their young if they gave birth just before the annual bonanza, and were well-fed enough to wean their joeys. Their mating seasons shortened and synchronised, collapsing into a tight window of time.
That probably wouldn’t have happened if they were placental mammals like shrews or mice, which could have produced several litters during the peak of food. But they were marsupials: their babies are born at an incredible early stage and rely on their mothers’ milk for a long time. A baby shrew suckles for days or weeks; a baby antechinus does so for four months. The females could only fit in one litter during the annual peak.
This had a huge impact on the males, which were forced to compete intensely with each other in a matter of weeks. They didn’t fight. Rather than using claws or teeth, they competed with sperm. The more they had, the more females they impregnated, and the more likely they were to displace the sperm of earlier suitors. Indeed, Fisher found a clear relationship between suicidal reproduction and testes size. The biggest testes of all, relative to body size, belong to species whose males die en masse, followed by those where a minority survive to mate again, and then by those with several breeding seasons.
The males that put the greatest efforts into sperm competition fathered the most young. It didn’t matter if they burned themselves out in the process, if they metabolised their own muscles to fuel their marathon bouts. These animals are short-lived anyway, so putting all their energy into one frenzied, fatal mating season was the best strategy for them. Living fast and dying young was adaptive.
Read the rest here.