The Dropbear, most frightening of Australian Wildlife.
The Dropbear, or Kowariala, is, of course, not a bear at all, but one of the few carnivorous marsupials of the Family Dasyuridae (which includes the better known Tasmanian Devil). Found only in the tall forests of the southern part of Western Australia, the Dropbear is very rare and considered to be extremely endangered or near extinction. For this reason it is illegal to harm a Dropbear even if it is a known man-eater.
When first sighted by Europeans, the Dropbear was mistaken for a Koala, from which it differs most significantly (apart from in its diet) in having more muscular arms, a heavier skull and longer snout, and most noticeably, prominent razor sharp fangs.
The Dropbear has a head and body length of 65 to 85 cm and weighs around 9 to 15kg. For many years little was known about these animals other than their documented habit of dropping from trees unto the heads of unsuspecting prey which they kill by a combination of stunning and biting. All members of the family Dasyuridae share the following features:
- pointed snouts
- teeth – lower incisors, well-developed canines, sharp cheek teeth
- aggressive hunters
- kill their prey by biting the back of the head and crushing the skull
- mainly nocturnal
The prey of the dasyurids depends on the size of the hunter. Small dasyurids live on small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and even eat fruit. The better-known Tasmanian Devil feeds on carrion but also on possums and wallabies while the Kowariala hunts only live prey and goes for larger victims such as kangaroos, cassowaries and emus, and – occasionally – humans. The Kowariala does not drink water, deriving all the fluid it needs from the blood and flesh of its prey.
Australian folklore abounds with frightening stories of the Dropbear whose Noongyar name Kowariala translates as “sky falling demon”. Because they are now so rare, many of the stories were dismissed as myth even after a spate of recent attacks brought their suspected existence back prominently into the public eye. The Dropbear never leaves a trace of its victim except perhaps a few bloodstains. This made their existence suspect even when no other explanation could be offered for the disappearances. Despite a number of disproven claims no human is known to have survived a genuine Dropbear attack. Many disappearances are now being ascribed to the Dropbear when other explanations do not seem appropriate.
The reason the Dropbear’s victims are never found is that the carcass of the victim is always carried up into the Kowaralia’s home tree, which is a species of eucalypt that is very tall and always hollow. The Kowariala has a symbiotic relationship with its home tree species, which has developed specialised internal roots, growing up into the hollow of the tree’s own trunk. These roots exude enzymes which digest the remains of the prey, breaking down bones and uneaten hides. One of the advantages of this arrangement is that there is no scent of carrion left to deter passing prey so the Dropbears can wait unsuspected and undetected for their next meal to pass below. Only the pleasant smell of eucalyptus wafts on the breeze, lulling prey into a false sense of security and cheerfulness. It seems that old and infirm Dropbears also end their days in the same enzymes, which explains why very few specimens have ever been found for dissection.