Context. The number of teats that a female agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis) possesses effectively determines her initial litter size. In the Otway Ranges, south-eastern Australia, numerous separate populations in which all females have either six or 10 teats occur fairly close together in similar, contiguous forest at comparable altitudes and latitudes. Six-teat and 10-teat females have a similar mean mass, but the latter have a 1.7 × greater reproductive potential and so should have a greater nutritional requirement while raising young than do six-teat females. Theoretically, they could meet this requirement by occupying larger and/or more exclusive home ranges during breeding than do six-teat females do (provided that their food-resource abundance is comparable), albeit at a greater energetic cost.
Aims. The aim of the study was to determine whether 10-teat A. agilis females occupied larger and less overlapping home ranges than did six-teat females. To interpret the findings more meaningfully, it was necessary to compare food abundance and habitat characteristics in areas occupied by the two phenotypes.
Methods. The investigation was conducted in six-teat and 10-teat A. agilis areas in cool temperate forest over 22 months. Population density was determined by mark–recapture methods and arthropod prey biomass and abundance by pitfall trapping. Vegetation structure and plant-taxa abundance and diversity were determined by standard plant-survey methods. Female home-range estimates determined by radio-tracking were based on 95% minimal convex polygons (MCP) and kernel analysis. Home-range overlap was based on 80% MCP range determinations and core areas were calculated from utilisation plots.
Key results. Female population density was 2.5 × lower in exclusively 10-teat than in exclusively six-teat populations. Radio-tracked 10-teat females’ home ranges less commonly overlapped those of identified female neighbours and, on average, were 1.5 × larger than ranges of six-teat females. Food abundance and composition was similar in six-teat and 10-teat areas, but ground cover was denser and more complex in the latter areas.
Conclusions. Food-resource availability was similar in the six-teat and 10-teat phenotype areas, so the larger, and probably more exclusive, home ranges of 10-teat females could reflect greater nutritional requirements resulting from having larger litters, and account for their lower population density.
Implications. The A. agilis teat-number variation pattern in the Otways may be a rare, visible example of ongoing incipient speciation. This makes it of great scientific and conservation value and it is important to document how the phenomenon operates.