Dispelling the Urban Legend that surrounds the Australian Dropbear
Copyright 2002 Ashley Gittins
It is a disturbing trend, but many people seem to take great pleasure in spreading fear and misinformation. Sadly, the Australian Dropbear is another victim of this type of treatment. For many years, visitors to Australia have been warned of this almost mythical sounding creature which stalks the forest canopy, waiting for a meal to pass by below. Whilst wide-eyed newcomers are listening intently to this new information, the informant-turned-storyteller may stoop to embellishment. This is unacceptable, as the threat posed to humans by the Dropbear is very real, and should be treated with the utmost seriousness.
I think it's safe to say that most people understand that Aussies love a good yarn. Indeed, competitions for the telling of tall stories are held at many folk and music festivals around the country. While I think that these in themselves are a great thing, perhaps we should be wary of how we allow our storytelling to alter what in effect should be public service announcements. Some of the un-truths I have heard about the Australian Dropbear include:
This embellishment claims that the Dropbear resulted from a chance mating between a native Koala and a Pro Wrestler in the mid to late 1970's. Please! This type of rubbish only serves to dilute the credibility of the Dropbear threat. Goodness knows we have enough trouble with the Government in our Country doing everything they can to conceal the Dropbear's very existence without resorting to blatant jests (look how well they did at hiding the fact that Tasmania has Tigers roamingfreely about). It is well understood that the dropbear has evolved over thousands of years. It's diminutive cousin the Koala was more often found in dryer areas of Australia where it's herbivorous lifestyle was a natural adaptation to scarce food supplies.
Conversely, Dropbear prides were morecommon in sub-tropical forests, where larger mammals (a primary food source) were more prevelant. The population density along coastal areas accounts for the less than comfortable relationship shared over the years by humans and Dropbears. Due to habitat destruction, many Dropbear prides have divided over the years, some of which head further inland in search of more plentiful food sources, and safer environments in which to raise cubs. This in turn has displaced some koala populations. This in fact serves to provide the Australian government with a convenient cover story. They (and others) claim that coastal Koala habitats are being destroyed, thereby lowering the count of koala's typically seen around urban Australia.
This is a fallacy, as koala's never inhabited coastal areas in any great numbers due to the Dropbear not being particularly concerned with matters of ettiquette regarding feeding on relatives. However, since many tourists tend to be dissapointed that they do not see a koala in every eucalytpus tree, the government perpetuates this story of an endagered species in a shrinking habitat. As horrible as it is, it sounds a lot better than saying "Oh, those cuddly things? Yeah, the dropbears ate them all".
A particularly amusing anectdote sometimes linked with Dropbear's is that the german infantry helmets were designed with a spike on the top in order to protect the wearer's from dropbears as they fell from the trees to gouge their throats. Obviously, this story would be a little more credible if the German's had ever actually invaded Australia, but they did not.
There is an interesting adjunct to the military story though. It is not widely known, but during WW-II, the Japanese did in fact land on the northern Australia coast. However, very little combat ensued, as the Japanese were ill prepared for an Australian land invasion. While a number of their forces would have been claimed to snake bites, crocodile attacks and tropical diseases carried by our impressive army of mosquitoes, it is generally beleived that the vast majority of the Japanese forces were defeated by our very own Dropbears, before they even saw Australian troops. Of course, the government (and tourism agencies) deny this, and in fact have made it generally unknown that the Japanese ever invaded Australian soil.
Back to the helmets though, this may explain the stereotypical image of the bikie gang-member donning a German helmet. Bikie gangs are a nature loving group of individuals, so naturally spend a fair amount of time riding the winding roads that criss-cross much of Australia's forestry areas. Perhaps there is some credence to the claim that such a helmet would provide some protection from Dropbear attack, however it remains very unlikely that the helmet was ever designed with this purpose in mind.
I have heard it claimed that Vegemite (a black foodstuff, high in vitamin B, manufactured as a joke to play on tourists) is a good Dropbear repellent when applied to the face and neck. I find this very difficult to believe, but cannot in truth disprove it. The fact is that the only true Dropbear repellent is Aeroguard. It is 100% effective, and not a single confirmed dropbear killing has been recorded against a person protected with Aeroguard (not to mention the fact that smearing Vegemite over your body is far less pleasant than a few sprays of Aeroguard). Due to political pressure Aeroguard is marketed as an insect repellent (a task it also performs rather well). We all have our strange marketing laws, and just as in the USA it is illegal to advertise the health benefits of a non-drug product, in Oz it is illegal to market protection products against "Creatures of plausible deniability". Go figure.
The existance of several species of the Terrestrial Australian Dropbear are well known. However, some reports circulate of a recently evolved genus, the "Aquatic Dropbear". Australia loses a large number of citizens and visitors in our waters, which are well populated with crocodiles, blue-ringed octopi, deadly stonefish, sea snakes, box jellyfish and of course, many species of shark. Not to mention dangerous surf conditions, rip-tides and poorly managed dive trips.
Personally, I do find it difficult to believe that a tree-dwelling mammal could rapidly evolve to the point where it can enter an aquatic environment as a formidable predator.
If there is such a creature, it is much more likely that it is in fact the ancient ancestor of our terrestrial friend we know as the dropbear. Most evolutionary scales hold to the theory that life came from the oceans, with creatures evolving to allow them to function on land, certainly not the other way around. While I personally am not convinced of the existence of an aquatic dropbear, I cannot discount it. I will however point out that the evolutionary process is almost certainly the reverse of what some have claimed.
Many texts dealing with dropbear attacks describe the claws as "great talons of amazing strength and size, usually several inches long, are used to tear the flesh from hapless victims".
The claws are NOT used to tear flesh per se. During the early days of colonisation in Australia (where we spell colonisation with an "s"), medical examinations of victims revealed that it is more of a strike, rip action. The claws of the dropbear are indeed long and strong, but they do not have a sharp edge along their length. An evolutionary viewpoint on this may suggest that the claws are smooth along their length in order to avoid scraping on branches while moving through the cover of the forest canopy. Any excess noise, or falling bark from sharp, scratching claws would likely alert any prey on the forest floor to the danger that awaits them from above. Considering that Dropbears will often hunt as a group, this is a reasonable theory - you could imagine the noise created by a pride of 30 dropbears preparing to strike if they had claws that scraped on the branches they crouched upon. Only the tips of their claws are sharp. The dropbear attacks by driving it's claws deep into the neck of a victim, then using a sideways tearing motion as the slightly curved claw is withdrawn. This method usually results in the veins and arteries of the neck being stretched and torn as opposed to sliced, as some texts may suggest.
The shaping of the Dropbear claw has had an interesting effect on Australian architecture, of all things. If you are a visitor to Oz, no doubt you will have noticed the great attraction we seem to have toward a product known as "corrugated iron". This is a steel sheeting, rolled during manufacture to present an undulating surface. It has been in use since the early days of settlement here, the primary reson for which is that it is difficult for dropbear's to penetrate. It is often said that a dropbear's claws can easily tear into a piece of sheetmetal several millimeters thick. However, a dropbear can only do this by first driving the claw into the metal, and then tearing a rift after puncturing it. The continually curving surface of corrugated iron makes it difficult for the claw to initially penetrate the metal (it's like trying to stab a pea with a fork), which is why it has become such a popular building material. Indeed, in areas of high dropbear density (such as national parks, and outback cattle stations), almost all buildings are entirely sheeted with corrugated iron in order to provide protection (or at least, some time) in the event of a dropbear attack.
I hope that this short work has given you some insight into the dropbear itself, as well as the types of myths and tales perpetuated on the 'net. It's important to verify your sources to ensure that you receive an accurate picture - Never beleive everything you read on the 'net.