We were walking down the trail from Taipan Wall when Michael abruptly stopped, dropped to his knee and pointed excitedly into the trees. I crouched down next to him and after a few moments I could make out something moving in the boulders. Two small faces, beanies pulled down over their tiny ears, large brown eyes scanning the rocks above them. My heart skipped a beat as I realised we were seeing a pair of elusive marsupial mattress backs (Matterbackious dynocranker).
Like most people I’d only ever seen mattress backs in the gym, playing with themselves in dark corners, swinging by their arms and waiting for feed time. Of course I’d heard their distinctive vocal calls and even stumbled upon their empty caves, but seeing them in the wild was a first for me. Here in the Australian bush mattress backs were once an endangered species, but are now thought to be increasing in numbers. Easily identifiable by the large mattress which they carry on their backs and the woolen beanies they wear on even the hottest of days, mattress backs are among our most elusive and secretive creatures.
What makes this species so unusual, however, is the elaborate rock dance that they periodically perform. Experts believe the rock dance is some form of complex mating ritual. The male, usually the shorter and stockier of the species, steps carefully onto the rock, twists his body into a variety of contorted positions and then, after just a few brief seconds, falls heavily onto the mattress below. These rock dances must require a great deal of effort as the male then rolls over and falls asleep.
Interestingly, if a female of the species is within sight, the male will immediately get up, shake his hands and step back on the rock. This process is repeated many times in a row. The female pretends not to notice the dancing male as she checks her Facebook account, applies her lip balm or changes the wallpaper on her iPhone for the umpteenth time that day. Her tactic appears to be designed to enrage the male mattress back who launches himself into ever more contorted positions accompanied by loud grunting. If there is still no reaction by the female (who may be playing Angry Birds by this stage) the almost exhausted male mattress back will resort to stripping to the waist in a final desperate bid for attention. Observers who have been lucky enough to have witnessed this part of the ritual have reported that after adjusting her Prana pants the female pulls on to the rock and imitates the same dance moves. This results in a sudden wave of interest among the nearby males who all stride forward with outstretched arms, the palms of their trembling hands just millimetres away from the female’s buttocks. As she dances her moves the males all yell in delight, crowding around her in a sort of group-sex rugby scrum. Eventually she collapses onto the mattress and the males all start wailing and pointing at the rock in apparent despair. This highly sex-charged atmosphere now triggers the males to pull on their beanies and launch themselves in a mad frenzy at the rock.
Occasionally a female will begin her rock dance and actually reach the top of the boulder, at which point all the males immediately lose interest in her, fall silent, put on their shirts and walk off in various directions to brood by themselves. The female then retires back to her mattress where she posts her ascent on Facebook.
Unlike other marsupials, mattress backs, both male and female, carry their pouches on their backs. These pouches are filled with a white substance, which they use to daub across the rock to mark their territory. Males also use urine to mark their territory, a habit that females rarely seem to do.
A sub species, the bearded mattress back (Matted dynocranker) can also be occasionally seen. This sub-species tends to be less energetic than their clean-shaven tribal brethren and are usually physically larger and more bombastic. Their rock dance ritual is also much less complex and only lasts for a second or two, after which they spend the rest of the day sitting on their mattresses, softly grunting to themselves.
Lone mattress backs are another enigma. Almost only ever spotted accompanied by a tripod and Go-Pro camera, it appears that lone mattress backs can only perform their complex rock dance routines when videoing themselves. Zoologists originally considered that lone mattress backs were a separate sub-species (lone mattress backs tend to be balding and wear glasses) but now believe that they are the result of a serious psychological impairment, having an inability to perform when observed by other members of their tribe.
And so it was that after a minute or so the two mattress backs noticed our presence and quickly vanished into the boulders. Michael and I walked over to where they had been sitting. All the tell-tale signs were there. A couple of old worn toothbrushes, bits of finger tape and some daubs of chalk on the rock. The acrid smell of urine indicated that we had just witnessed two young males at play with each other. We felt very lucky indeed to have seen these mattress backs in their natural habitat. I even stepped in a mattress back stool. Now how cool was that?