May 22, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Mythical Drop Bears of Australian Folklore are Real - Fossils Found

When it comes to strange animals, no country or continent comes close to Australia, with its platypus, echidna, Tasmanian devil, koala, cassowary, wombat and kangaroos just to name a few. A country with that many living odd creatures could be forgiven if it lacked in mythical animals or cryptids, but Australia has those too – Bunyip, Yowie, hoop snake, Hawkesbury River monster, Yara-ma-yha-who, Burrunjor, and the ‘is it extinct or not’ Tasmanian tiger or thylacine. Finally, there is a creature that has long been mythical but is becoming more real as paleontologists find more bones – the drop bear. Was there really a carnivorous giant koala hiding in trees, waiting to drop down on unsuspecting mammals and rip them apart with its sharp claws and teeth? Could it still exist today? Did it ever exist at all? A team of researchers at The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) has some surprising answers.

“You guys don’t know what a drop bear is? OK, they are a carnivorous possum that lives in gum tress but then drops out of the branches, lands in the kangaroo or whatever’s back, and rips their throat out with an elongated canine tooth. Sort of looks like a feral pig tusk. Then laps the blood up like a vampire bat. During the expansion of the 1930s the farmers organized drives because they were killing stock. There is a stuffed in the museum in town.” (“Great Australian Stories: Legends, Yarns and Tall Tales” by Graham Seal)

There are many versions of the tales of the drop bear in Australia and they are generally used to scare tourists. An early written reference to them appears in a classified advertisement in the Canberra Times in 1982, but in general the stories are word-of-mouth myths and legends of the outback. If the wide-eyed listener is a tourist, the telling often includes advice to ward off drop bears like putting forks in their  hair (to scare the bear from dropping on it), rubbing Vegemite behind their ears or in their armpits, or tricking them by only speaking English in an Australian accent. The Australian Museum website states that the Drop Bear’s scientific name is the “Thylarctos plummetus” and the museum has an exhibit on the creature – both done tongue in cheek. In possibly a similar vein, the University of Tasmania, Australia, website has an article on “Indirect tracking of drop bears using GNSS technology,” claiming “the method can be used to effectively estimate the number of drop bears in the study area” as well as “other rare species, including hoop snakes and bunyips.”

Wombats are small, cute marsupial relatives of the drop bear.

Does that make you a little bit skeptical of the existence of the drop bear?

“But what if we looked inside fossil bones? What secrets would it reveal about the growth and development of an extinct animal? In a newly published paper in the Journal of Paleontology, we have done just that, using 15 million-year-old skeletons of a giant bear-like marsupial from the world-famous Riversleigh World Heritage Area (Boodjamulla) in Waanyi country of northwest Queensland.”

Its mythical stories didn’t deter four Australian scientists - Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan from the University of Cape Town, and Karen Black, Mike Archer and Sue Hand from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney - from digging deeper, both physically and theoretically, into the fossilized bones of what just might have been the inspiration for the drop bear. The four are authors of a new paper, “Paleobiological implications of the bone histology of the extinct Australian marsupial Nimbadon lavarackorum,” published in the Journal of Paleontology. As the title states, the creature they are studying is the Nimbadon lavarackorum – an extinct marsupial from the Late Oligocene to the Miocene epochs (about 25 million years to 12 million years ago) whose fossils were only discovered in the early 1990s in the Riversleigh World Heritage R Area (Boodjamulla) in Waanyi country of northwest Queensland. Early examinations of the fossils led researchers to believe that the large marsupial weighed about 154 pounds (70 kg) and lived in trees, making them the largest tree dwelling mammals to ever live in Australia. They are from the Nimbadon family of extinct, large-bodied marsupials known as diprotodontoids, which includes the largest marsupial ever – the 2.5 ton Diprotodon. As the researchers explain in their article in The Conversation, the N. lavarackorum are most closely related to modern marsupial wombats, but probably looked and acted more like sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), the tree-dwelling non-marsupial bears of Southeast Asia. However, as more fossils were found and complete skeletons were recreated, they found that N. lavarackorum had strong arms with very mobile shoulder and elbow joints, and “its hands and feet had specially adapted opposable thumbs with huge curved claws for climbing, penetrating bark and grasping branches.” These characteristics inspired them to stop calling N. lavarackorum a “tree-hugger” – it is now thought to be a “tree-hanger.” However, the team knew there was much more to learn about these possible drop bears, so they decided to look inside their fossilized bones.

For the research, the team selected long leg bones (five femora and five tibiae) of juveniles, subadult, and adult N. lavarackorum. They took thin slices from these bones and polished them until light could pass through them under a microscope. These bones showed that N. lavarackorum grew in periodic fast and slow spurts, but the cause of this eight-year cycle of spurts was not readily evident.

A sun bear acting like a drop bear.

OK, let’s get to what you’ve stuck around until now to find out. Are these N. lavarackorum the real drop bears? Before we answer, it should be noted that the mythical drop bears are vicious carnivores, while N. lavarackorum are believed to be extremely large herbivores. Here’s what the researchers have to say:

“We have come to think about these strange arboreal marsupials as real versions of the legendary “drop bears” of Australian folklore – mysterious tree-dwelling creatures that would drop down on unsuspecting animals below. While moving in herds through the rainforest canopy, both young and adult Nimbadon would have occasionally lost their grip before dropping down from the treetops. Sometimes they would end up in forest floor caves, which is where we have been finding their still-articulated skeletons.”

We’ll take that as a qualified ‘yes’ because the N. lavarackorum looked like sun bears, dropped out of trees and are marsupials like wombats and koalas – even though they were herbivores and just accidentally fell out of their trees. If they tore anything apart on the ground, it was the leaves, branches and trees they fell on and ate. The research team noted that it will continue to study the N. lavarackorum because of “the constant surprises that research into this extraordinary, extinct Riversleigh mammal has already produced.”

As far as we know, the N. lavarackorum is extinct. However, keep a jar of Vegemite handy just in case.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

Join MU Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions & much more! Subscribe Today!