Australia – land of sunshine and spectacular scenery, sand and surfing, beer and barbies – and perhaps something terrifying in the treetops…

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It’s just a koala… no, a Tasmanian Devil… NO! iStockphoto

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Taking a trip Down Under? Maybe you’ll enjoy some time at the beach, swimming and surfing (don’t forget to pack that shark repellent!). Or perhaps you’ll explore the urban delights – keep an eye out for those toxic spiders under the loo seat. Oh, and watch out for any number of snakes everywhere…

Strewth! So, perhaps a peaceful trip into the Outback, even a little camping? Take care, the unsuspecting traveller may face a terrible predator here, too – and one just as deadly as toxic spiders and Great White sharks.

Beware the dreaded Drop Bear! This giant and powerful, predatory flesh-eating koala is said to stalk the unwary, dropping onto its victim from above, pinning them down – and eating them alive.

Predatory

Search the website of the Australian Museum and you’ll find an entry for the Drop Bear. It classifies the creature as Thylarctos plummetus and describes it as ‘a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the koala’.

The creature is the size of a leopard, covered in coarse, orange fur with dark mottling. It has powerful forearms for climbing and attacking prey, and a bite made using its broad, powerful premolar teeth, rather than canines.

It is said that the only way to protect yourself is to stick a fork into your hair, smear yourself with Vegemite or speak with an Australian accent.

But never fear – tales of the fearsome Drop Bear are all simply a massive and ever-popular Aussie leg-pull. The creature is actually just a legend, like that of the Yaya-ma-yha-who vampire and the Bunyip spirit monster, both from the culture of the indigenous Australian people.

Or is it…?

Mythical beast

For the mythical beast closely matches a very real animal that prowled Australia during the last Ice Age – Thylacoleo carnifex, the ‘marsupial lion.’ A striped beast that launched itself at much larger prey, sinking formidable teeth and claws into the flesh of its victim and clinging on until it had killed.

The skeleton of a marsupial lion REX/Shutterstock

The skeleton of a marsupial lion (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Thylacoleo was, in fact, more like a carnivorous koala than a cat. Its skull was a modified version of a koala’s or wombat’s, but with sharp, fused cleaver-like shearing teeth, instead of grinders – just like the Drop Bear. The marsupial lion also had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal. Perfect for disemboweling prey and tearing meat cleanly off bones.

With enormous, muscled forelegs, and hooked, razor-sharp retractable claws, paleontologists suggest that the paws of this marsupial predator would have been just as useful for climbing trees as tackling large prey. Fossil bones of marsupial lions and their prey, found in Southwestern Australia’s Tight Entrance Cave, have been a good source of information on this long-extinct creature. Scratch marks cover the cave walls, indicating that it may have reared its young there.

Ambush

Some experts think that Thylacoleos might have lived and hunted in trees. Its bones indicate that it was a slow- to medium-paced runner, which suggest it ambushed its prey. And its striped fur would have been perfect camouflage for stalking and hiding in trees, rather than chasing across open spaces.

The Giant Wombat may have been on the menu REX/Shutterstock

The Giant Wombat may have been on the menu (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

The marsupial lion may have lived and hunted in packs, so it’s also possible it could have attacked really large creatures, such as the Diprotodon optatum – a rhino-sized wombat, whose bones have been found with Thylacoleo bite-marks on them.

Specialised tail

While Thylacoleo could walk and run on four legs, it also seems to have been able to stand on two legs. Like kangaroos and some of the heavier dinosaurs, specialised bones in its tail turned it into a prop when the animal stood up. Evidence suggests the stocky, agile marsupial lions were ideally suited to bringing down Procoptodon – the short-face giant kangaroo.

Thylacoleo, with its powerful forelegs and shoulders, huge sharp claws and terrifying bite, and abilty to balance for short periods on two legs, would have been perfectly suited to prey on the giant kangaroos.

Its method of attack most likely would have been to stand and hook onto the kangaroo’s belly or chest and use its powerful forelimbs to pull itself up. Attached to a very large, very powerful animal, the marsupial lion would then need to bring down its prey quickly – which may explain its extraordinary teeth and powerful bite.

The bones of these kangaroos found in an Australian swamp – and bearing marsupial lion toothmarks – suggest that Thylacoleo fed largely on their internal organs.

Easy pickings

However, there is evidence that the terrifying beast had another, and perhaps much easier prey – humans. An image of this creature in an ancient rock painting, discovered in 2008, depicts what is probably a marsupial lion and even suggests it had striped fur. And Aboriginal cave paintings of what are thought to be Thylacoleos found in the Kimberley region of Australia, show a beast with heavy fore-shoulders leaping at a man.

The marsupial lion – although long-extinct – was very real. But is the Drop Bear of more recent times just a legend, or could it be some strange, ancestral memory of this long-dead and fearsome man-eating predator?

Perhaps, just to be on the cautious side, if you find yourself in the Outback, look up – there may be Drop Bear waiting to strike from a tree above you!