Evolution and Biodiversity

Category: sleeping

Sacrificing sleep

Male dusky antechinus reduces sleep in mating season

As for all species, producing as many offspring as possible is what life is all about for the dusky antechinus, Antechinus swainsonii. For males, which do not care for young, this means that they have to mate with as many females as possible, because every successful mating may increase the number of young they sire. To achieve this, only three weeks are available, because this is the period in which all females are fertile. Males experience fierce competition; as a consequence of the pressure to face this, they are twice as heavy as females.

This short and intensive mating season has a very bizarre ending for males: they all die. Females, that carry the young in a flap of skin (they have no complete pouch), stay alive and many of them experience a second reproduction season the next year. But for males, it is over after one time.

To score as many partners as possible in that single mating season, males cut back on rest, Erika Zaid and colleagues discovered.

The dusky antechinus, a species of broad-footed marsupial mice, is an insectivorous predator that lives in Australia. Before the mating season, male and female sleep an average of more than 15 hours per day. During the mating season, measurements of physical activity and EEGs show that males reduce this to 12 hours on average: 20 percent less. The increased activity, which they exhibit especially at night, is accompanied by a higher level of the male sex hormone testosterone in the blood, giving them extra time and strength to find females and get access.

Unfortunately, the researchers do not know whether males that sacrifice much sleep actually father more offspring. Also, they did not investigate whether males compensate for the lack of sleep by sleeping more deeply.

Sleeping less jeopardizes health. The concentration of corticosteroids, which suppress the immune system, increases, with ultimately fatal consequences. But because males will die soon anyway, staying healthy is no longer important. Mating more often is now a better strategy than getting enough sleep.

You might think that dusky antechinus males die after the mating season because they have been acting so unhealthy. But that is not how it works, according to the researchers. Their death is a certainty. The increase in corticosteroids hardly contributes anything to this fate, but it does ensure that they can sustain their increased activity.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Antechinus swainsonii. Catching the eye (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Zaid, E., F.W. Rainsford, R.D. Johnsson, M. Valcu, A.L. Vyssotski, P. Meerlo & J.A. Lesku, 2024. Semelparous marsupials reduce sleep for seks. Current Biology, January 25 online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.12.064

Red blood cells hided

Glass frog is more translucent when sleeping

Fleischmann's glass frog is extra translucent when sleeping.

A sleeping Fleischmann’s glass frog can hardly be seen. Red blood cells, which would make the animal visible, are stored away temporarily, Carlos Taboada and colleagues write.

Fleischmann’s glass frog has transparent muscles and a transparent ventral skin that transmit light, rendering heart and intestines visible from below. The skin of its back contains a little green pigment. With these qualities, the animal is translucent: a form of camouflage. But red blood cells – which do not transmit the light, but reflect red light and absorb other colours – can spoil the effect.

Carlos Taboada and colleagues show that the frog has a way to solve this problem: when it sleeps, it removes almost all red blood cells from the bloodstream.

Sleep during daytime

Glass frogs belong to the few translucent land animals that exist. Fleischmann’s glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni, is one of them. The animal, which grows up to three centimetres in length, is found in rainforests in Central and South America. Adult frogs live on land. They are active at night and sleep during daytime, hanging upside down under a leaf. The less they stand out against the leaf when sleeping, the harder it is for predators, mainly birds, to spot them.

It is helpfull that the glass frog is translucet. And by removing almost all red blood cells, about 90 percent, from circulation, a sleeping glass makes itself extra translucent. It hides the red blood cells in the liver, which expands considerably as a result. So, the glass frog is more difficult to detect while resting, when it cannot be alert. As soon as the animal resumes activity, the blood cells go back into the bloodstream and translucency diminishes.


Red blood cells are red because they contain the pigment haemoglobin, a protein that binds oxygen; red blood cells carry oxygen to all other cells. During sleep, therefore, the cells receive no oxygen. Apparently, they are able to coop with that.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Fleischmann’s glass frog. Esteban Alzate (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5)

Taboada, C., J. Delia, M. Chen, C. Ma, X. Peng, X. Zhu, L. Jiang, T. Vu, Q. Zhou, J. Yao, L. O’Connell & S. Johnsen, 2022. Glassfrogs conceal blood in their liver to maintain transparency. Science 378: 1315-1320. Doi: 10.1126/science.abl662
Cruz, N.M. & R.M. White, 2022.  Lessons on transparency from the glassfrog. Transparency in glassfrogs has potential implications for human blood clotting. Science 378: 1272-1273. Doi: 10.1126/science.adf75
Barnett, J.B., C. Michalis, H.M. Anderson, B.L. McEwen, J. Yeager, J.N. Pruitt, N.E. Scott-Samuel & I.C. Cuthill, 2020. Imperfect transparency and camouflage in glass frogs. PNAS 117: 12885-12890. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1919417117