Antechinus: Boom and Bust... Mammalian Style

If you’ve ever ventured out to rural areas, seen a small critter scurry across the veranda or through some bushes, and thought ‘Was that a mouse?’ - think again, because it may not have been!

 

Meet the Antechinus, also known as the Marsupial Mouse. Charismatic and energetic, Antechinuses are found throughout our countryside’s undergrowth and are one of our most underappreciated marsupials. At the root of this is the fact that the Antechinus is too often mistaken for the common mouse. In reality, however, the Antechinus has much more to offer…

The Brown Antechinus (Antechinus stuartii ). Image: Ian McCann / Museum Victoria

The Brown Antechinus (Antechinus stuartii ). Image: Ian McCann / Museum Victoria

Like their bigger, more ferocious Dasyurid cousins (such as Quolls and Tasmanian Devils), Antechinuses are carnivorous. They tend to feast on as many insects and bugs as is possible in their short life span, which is generally only a year or two depending on their gender.

 

It is this short life span that makes the Antechinus such a special creature. Being semelparous (only breeding once in their lifespan), these small marsupials live life at a hundred miles an hour. The males live for around a year, dying off in August after a mating season of approximately one month. This is what is so extraordinary about this creature:  the sheer stress of mating causes their immune system to shut down about two weeks after the breeding season. The result is that every male in the population dies off at the same time - a trait far more common in insects than vertebrates.

Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis ) and young. Image: Bruce Cowell (www.brucecowellphotographer.com.au)

Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis ) and young. Image: Bruce Cowell (www.brucecowellphotographer.com.au)

It is this very boom and bust nature of their life cycle that makes the Antechinus one of the most unique mammals on the planet. Of the six Antechinus species, the most commonly found are the Agile and the Dusky Antechinus, simply because they are so inquisitive. It’s not uncommon for one to be found scurrying around a kitchen looking for treats! So next time you see a creature scurry off into the bushes, don’t assume it’s a mouse. Rather, spare a thought for one of our state’s most curious and fascinating small mammals.