Australia | Suicidal marsupials have survived devastating fires

(Sydney) A rare species of plant-like marsupial, whose males usually die of stress after an “intensive” breeding season, has survived the fires that ravaged Australia in 2019-2020, researchers have revealed.

When bushfires devastated much of its habitat in Polborine National Park, Queensland, scientists were concerned about the future of this species of silver-headed antipodal bird, which was officially identified in 2013.

This park is one of three habitat sites in Australia for this species.

“We found 21 individuals between burnt and unburned habitats, which is fantastic. That means they are alive,” explained Andrew Baker of Queensland University of Technology.

With a third of their habitat destroyed by the fires, Mr. Baker feared that no marsupials of this kind would remain.

The male silver-headed anti-monkey, which feeds mainly on insects and spiders, usually dies before the age of one year from the consequences of an intense two-week breeding season.

Females rarely live until the third mating period.

“In males, high levels of testosterone due to the enlargement of the testicles prevents disruption of the stress hormone cortisol. So they overflow with cortisol during the breeding season and end up poisoning them.”

Males experience internal bleeding, their hair falls out, and they sometimes become blind. Even then, they can roam around looking for females to mate until they die,” Becker says.

From late May to early June, scientists trapped the surviving marsupials, using sniffer dogs to discover places to set traps or cameras as part of an operation funded by WWF Australia.

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Mr. Baker fears, however, that the future of the species will be threatened in the long term by climate change, which in particular leads to droughts and more frequent fires.

In addition, it is threatened by non-native predators such as cats as well as the destruction of the brush in which it lives by animals such as cows, horses and wild boars.

It’s important to look for the species after the fires, said Daniel Grover of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Australia, who was involved in the study.

“Silver-headed antichinus was immediately declared an endangered species even before it was affected by the fires. We can’t let it go.”

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