The little red kaluta is making our hearts burst
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
MEET THE LITTLE red kaluta (Dasykaluta rosamondae), a compact, carnivorous and nocturnal marsupial that lives in the deserts of northwestern Australia. At around 15 centmetres long and 40 grams in weight, it’s about the size of a marsupial mole, but quite a bit smaller than a bilby.
The species has only been known to science since 1964, but the local Aboriginal community has no doubt known it for far longer – its common and genus name have been adopted from the language of the Nyamal people from the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Its species name, Rosamondae, refers to its coat, which can look quite red, just like the hair of Rosamond Clifford, the famously beautiful mistress of King Henry II. The Latin phrase, rosa mundi, means “rose of the world”.
— Judy Dunlop (@DrJudyDunlop) September 9, 2019
The little red kaluta was originally thought to be a type of antechinus – another small and cute carnivorous marsupial – but in 1982, studies of its penis shape and DNA revealed that it was something else entirely.
My apologies for making you think about this precious little Pokemon’s penis, but we’re not done, because something the kaluta and the antechinus have in common is a spicy sex life (I’m really, really sorry).
Just like the antechinus, the kaluta is semelparous, which means it bangs itself to death.
Only a handful of species are known to reproduce like this, and most of them are invertebrates. In fact, it wasn’t until April this year that scientists were able to confirm the suicidal sexual tendencies of the kaluta, and it’s about as dramatic as it sounds.
“We found that males only mate during one highly synchronised breeding season, and then they all die,” Genevieve Hayes, a vertebrate ecologist and the lead author of the study, told The New York Times.
It happens like this: once the males hit sexual maturity at around 10 months old, in early September they have two weeks to mate with as many females as they can – sometimes for 14 hours a day. Like a bee in a jar, all that frenzied activity ends up killing the little Lotharios; their immune system takes a major hit because of all that extra testosterone.
Unfortunate as it is, the strategy seems to work, because kaluta females are able to have litters of babies with multiple fathers.
Okay, now let’s go back to kalutas being cute, and here’s a nice palate cleanser.
And here’s one giving a wildlife surveyor a good chomp before yeeting itself to safety: