The habit of male northern quolls to forgo sleep and food in favour of recklessly pursuing every possible mating opportunity may be killing them, researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, have found.


Northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus) are carnivorous cat-sized marsupials that live across northern Australia. While the females can live and reproduce for up to four years, the males rarely make it beyond a single mating season. The reason for this has long puzzled researchers.

Now, a new study suggests that this post-breeding die-off, known technically as semelparity, may be due to males travelling long distances and skipping sleep in order to mate with as many females as possible.

“They cover large distances to mate as often as possible and it seems that their drive is so strong that they forgo sleeping to spend more time searching for females,” said co-researcher Dr Christofer Clemente, UniSC Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecophysiology.

“Something is definitely causing their health to fail after just one season and we think it is linked to sleep deprivation.

“The dangers of a lack of sleep are well documented in rodents, and many of the traits associated with sleep deprivation we see in male quolls, and not in females.”

The team followed the activity of wild roaming male and female northern quolls on Groote Eylandt, off the coast of the Northern Territory, Australia, by fitting them with tracking backpacks.

They found that males spent less time sleeping and resting than females and travelled over greater distances.

“Two males, who we named Moimoi and Cayless moved for 10.4km and 9.4 km in one night respectively. An equivalent human distance, based on average stride length, would be around 35-40km,” said lead researcher Joshua Gaschk, a PhD student at UniSC.

The team also found that the males’ condition deteriorated as they became infested with parasites after devoting less time to grooming and lost weight due to skipping meals.

The researchers now want to determine if sleep deprivation is experienced by other marsupial mammals such as opossums, marsupial mice and Tasmanian devils.

Read more about marsupials:



Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.