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Little Red Kaluta

LITTLE RED KALUTA (Dasykaluta rosamondae)

Original image by Marie Lochman
These weird little critters were brought to my attention by my friend Jen Mawhinney of Fredericton a few years ago and have been rattling around in my brain (figuratively) ever since. I think they're pretty neat, but does my completely arbitrary rating system agree?

Appearance

Kalutas are unassuming mammals that look like adorable fuzzy little mice. They are not mice, but they're soft and fluffy with big eyes and pointy little snoots and whiskers and oh my god I can't even stand looking at them they're too cute. They fit in the palm of your hand and you could probably put one in your pocket and carry it around and give it little things to eat from time to time. Whoever gave them their common name (and their Latin name, which I'll talk about at length later) seemed to think that they're red but I would call them a staunch brown. So, you know, that's bullshit.

Points: 0.5/1 for having a misleading name

Behaviour

The reason kalutas were made known to me is because they have a mating system that's very unusual in mammals: they're polyandrous. Most mammals are polygynous, which means a single male mates with multiple females. Some mammals are monogamous (wolves, for example, tend to only mate with one other individual at any given time), and a very small portion of mammals, including weirdos like marmosets, are polyandrous. One female mates with multiple males.

Polygyny is a sensible strategy, at least for mammals.* A single male can impregnate multiple females and increase his fitness by having a shit ton of little bastards running around carrying his genes. Polyandry works in kalutas because the females store sperm. They mate with multiple males during a single breeding season and then have a bunch of babies with different dads. This is a good strategy, because it means the offspring from a single litter have more variety in their genes than a little of babies that all had the same two parents.

Kalutas live in a pretty extreme environment, so this is a great idea. Females of any mammal need to survive anyway in order for there to be more of that mammal in the future, and males are largely expendable after mating. Kalutas make this work really well.

Points: 1/1

Distribution

Kalutas only live in Australia. Normally, living in only one country would be a problem, but Australia is really big so I'm not gonna deduct marks for that. However, they only live in something called "the Pilbara", which is one specific part of North West Australia. The Pilbara is some sort of desert, and the Kaluta's habitat is basically just sand and shitty grass. I'm always impressed by animals that live in the desert because, seriously, who the fuck would want to live there.

Because living in the desert is such a shit show, desert animals have to have a whole bunch of adaptations to survive. For example, kalutas are nocturnal, sleeping in little burrows when it's hot outside, and only coming out at night to hunt when it's cooler. They also do this thing where they enter a state called 'torpor' (which is, incidentally, what happens to me when I eat too much pasta). During torpor, their metabolic rate and evaporative water loss drop off. It's a super efficient thing to do when it's really hot, because they're consuming less energy and losing less water.

Points: 1/1

Ecology

Kalutas are carnivorous, monching on bugs and stuff like that out in the desert. They might also eat mice which is kind of fucked up because they're not that much bigger than a mouse. "But," you say, "people eat pigs and cows and other things that are of equal or bigger size." This is true, but people have guns and shit so we can take down animals a lot bigger than we are. Kalutas do not have guns and shit, so I assume that if they're killing and eating mice it's because they're straight up violent motherfuckers.

On the other hand, mice are not native to Australia. They were introduced by European colonizers in the 1700s and have periodic spikes in abundance called "mouse plagues" in certain parts of the country. If you like swarms of things, you may enjoy this delightful clip of a fuckton of mice overrunning a barn from the documentary Swarm. So, ya know. Fuck mice. If kalutas are taking advantage of a gross invasive species, I say power to them.

Points: 1/1

Evolution

Like most Australian mammals, kalutas are marsupials. Marsupials aren't quite as fucked up as the egg-laying mammals (platypus and echidna), but they're still pretty fucking weird. Instead of giving birth to a whole baby, like regular god-fearing mammals, marsupials squeeze out their offspring when they're little more than embryos. This seems like a great idea when you consider how unpleasant forcing a cranium through a cervix is. However, baby marsupials do the rest of their development inside of a pouch. And yeah, they like... shit in there and everything. Just imagine how stinky and disgusting a kaluta's pouch must be when those babies are ready to come out. How itchy. Ugh.

Today, most marsupial species live in Australia, with a few in the Americas. But back in the day, marsupials were the bee's tits. Originating during the Cretaceous period, marsupials lived all over the place until about 14 million years ago. Then, placental mammals (mammals whose kids develop inside their bodies) took over everywhere except Australia for some reason. This is because placental mammals had a lot more options for diversification. Having pouches restricts the types of body plans that marsupials can have (there were never any marsupial equivalents of whales or bats, for example). Also, because development happens inside a pouch rather than inside an egg or uterus, marsupial babies are exposed to a lot more environmental shit.

Anyway, where I'm going with this is that marsupials are gross and weird and I don't like them.

Points: 0/1

Life History

Another weird thing about the sexual behaviour of kalutas is that the males are what dorks call "semelparous", which means they die after one breeding season (versus iteroparous animals which don't necessarily die after mating). Semelparity is really common among invertebrates, but it's almost unheard of in mammals. Male kalutas fuck so much and so hard during a really short period of time that their little bodies just can't handle the stress anymore and they give up the ghost. Which probably beats being eaten by a dingo? I dunno, tough call.

Points: 0/1 for being weird

Interaction with Humans

Okay, so that thing about their name. I tantalized you with it earlier and now I'm gonna talk about it. The rosamundae part of their scientific name comes from Rosamund Clifford, the red-haired mistress of King Henry II. King Henry II was most famous for fucking off to fight the French, and for being married to legit Bad Bitch Eleanor d'Aquitaine, but he was also apparently boning this Rosamund Clifford, who may or may not have been a real person. She died, allegedly, in 1174 by the hand of the Bad Bitch herself, and nobody knows if she really did have red hair, if she even existed. So kalutas get their scientific name from a semi-fictitious person because some guy thought their fur was red. Mind you, species have been named after Harry Potter characters which is also incredibly stupid, so at least this animal was named by a history nerd.

Points: 0.5/1 for having a dumb name but at least that name is not weasleyei

Final Score: 4/7
Kalutas hold up pretty well

Further Reading

  • Bennet V. 2012. Fossil focus: marsupial evolution - a limited story? Paleontology[Online]. 2(10): 1-9 (Link)
  • Fisher DO, Dickman CR, Jones ME, Blomberg SP. 2013. Sperm competition drives the evolution of suicidal reproduction in mammals. PNAS. 110(44): 17910-17914. (Link)
  • Georgiou A. 2019. Males of this tiny mammal species die en masse after a single mating season because it's so exhausting. Newsweek. (Link)
  • Hayes GLT, Simmons LW, Dugand RJ, Mills HR, Roberts JD, Tompkins JL, Fisher DO. 2019. Male semelparity and multiple paternity confirmed in an arid-zone dasyurid. Journal of Zoology. 308(4): 266-273
  • Singleton GR, Brown PR, Pech RP, Jacob J, Mutze GJ, Krebs CJ. 2005. One hundred years of eruptions of house mice in Australia - a natural biological curio. Biological Journal of the Linnean Sociery. 84(3): 617-627
  • Thompson GG, Thompson SA. 2008. Abundance and distribution of five small mammals at a local scale. Australian Mammalogy. 30: 65-70
  • Withers PC, Cooper CE. 2009. Thermal, metabolic, and hygric physiology of the little red kaluta Dasykaluta rosamondae (Dasyuromorpha: Dasyuridae). Journal of Mammalogy. 90(3): 752-760

*Disclaimer: if you use mating behaviour in animals to justify human social behaviour, congratulations, you're a fucking moron

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