There’s the Little Death and Then There’s This

Dec 26, 2013 • Science

the antechinus dies after a sex binge

“La petite mort,” or “the little death,” is a timeless favorite for describing orgasm. Of course, there’s the little death and then there’s having sex until you disintegrate. For the antechinus, a tiny hedgehog-looking marsupial, reproduction isn’t simply a matter of life and death for its species — it’s death itself. Once a male antechinus reaches sexual maturity, it will go into a two- to three-week binge during which he will mate with as many females as he can.

During this time, he will do very little else, spending all his energy on sex to the point that he literally begins to fall to pieces. First, his fur will fall off. Then the internal bleeding will begin. Finally, his immune system will be compromised and he’ll be unable to fight off infection. He will disintegrate just weeks before the end of its first year.

“The technical term for this is semelparity, from the Latin words for ‘to beget once,'” writes Ed Yong at National Geographic‘s Phenomena blog. “For semelparous animals, from salmon to mayflies, sex is a once-in-a-lifetime affair, and usually a fatal one. This practice is common among many animal groups, but rare among mammals. You only see it in the 12 species of antechinuses and a few close relatives, all of which are small, insect-eating marsupials. (Although they look like rodents and are colloquially called marsupial mice, antechinuses are more closely related to kangaroos and koalas than to mice or rats.)”

In his column, he explores the reasons for this disturbing adaptation. You want to read it.

Header image by Michael Sale.