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Can’t bear ‘em: how GPS is helping to track drop bears

Drop bears (Thylarctos plummetus) are a species of carnivorous Australian marsupial, renowned for preying on tourists in the bush. Infamous for their mode of attack, new technology is now shedding light…

Beware the drop bear. Wikimedia commons

Drop bears (Thylarctos plummetus) are a species of carnivorous Australian marsupial, renowned for preying on tourists in the bush. Infamous for their mode of attack, new technology is now shedding light on their distribution, population and behaviour.

Drop bears spend most of their time in treetops. They hunt by ambushing ground-dwelling animals (mainly medium to large mammals) from above, skilfully latching onto the victim’s neck to kill the prey. Quietly waiting in a tree for several hours, the drop bear closely resembles a sleeping koala.

Once prey is within striking range, the drop bear will plummet several metres out of the tree to pounce on top of the unsuspecting victim. The initial impact generally stuns the prey, allowing it to be bitten on the neck and quickly subdued.

Look out above

Bushwalkers are prone to come in contact with drop bears when hiking off the beaten track in Australia. Thanks to a new approach to animal tracking, it is now possible to minimise attacks on humans and enhance conservation practises in these areas.

Drop bears do not specifically target human beings. Yet there have been several cases where humans have fallen victim to drop bear attacks, resulting in serious lacerations and even death. Numerous disappearances may also be attributed to drop bears.

While the Australian government has been accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to cover up the existence of drop bears in order to protect the tourist industry, these claims have never been substantiated.

Animal tracking goes high-tech

For about 50 years, the tagging and tracking of animals has been a vital tool to better understand animal behaviour and ecology.

The introduction of satellite-based positioning technology into the field of animal tracking has made a huge impact. It has opened the door to many exciting discoveries and heavily supports animal conservation efforts.

Global Positioning System (GPS) and other Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals can provide accurate, regular and frequent estimates of the changing distributions of many rare animal species. This means that it is possible to determine animal positions continuously rather than relying on occasional snapshots of the animal’s whereabouts.

Conventional GNSS-based tracking methods require the sensor to be directly attached to the animal of interest. This makes it extremely difficult to study tree-dwelling animals like the drop bear. The dense tree canopy regularly causes extended periods of complete GNSS signal loss, and sensors are often damaged during attacks on prey. This severely reduces the availability of meaningful tracking data and substantially increases the cost of drop bear tracking.

Tracking drop bears, the student method

To address these shortcomings, an alternative for tracking drop bears has recently been proposed in the Australian Geographer. This indirect GNSS-based method involves tracking the prey rather than the predator. The animal population is then mapped by pinpointing the location and timing of drop bear attacks.

It has been demonstrated that this method can effectively estimate the number and distribution of drop bears in a particular area. The analysis has also given valuable insights into the animal’s hunting behaviour.

The study has confirmed that foreigners are much more likely to be “dropped on” than Australians. The results also indicate that drop bears do not necessarily target the last person walking in a line.

Obviously, a better understanding of drop bear behaviour and ecology allows us to ensure that a sustainable population is maintained, while the possibility of attacks on humans is limited. The indirect GNSS-based tracking method provides us with a tool to do just that.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Christopher White

    PhD candidate at La Trobe University

    Might I suggest that all those entering the bush carry a steel umbrella? Failing that, a tinfoil hat might do the job.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Christopher White

      When in the bush, I liberally cover the back of my neck with Vegemite, and have never suffer drop bear attack.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      No doubt David that is because drop bears do not like ants and your skin is so thick you cannot feel them feasting on the vegemite.

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Christopher White

      Both are especially good for recharging PhD energiser bunnies in thunderstorms.

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    4. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Maybe you are correct, but everyone knows that wombats cannot resist Vegemite.

      No win situation - dropped upon from high or licked to death by a creature that by its bulk alone stops traffic.

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Greg North

      Actually, Greg, it was problems with ants that dissuaded me from my first choice, marmalade.

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  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " While the Australian government has been accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to cover up the existence of drop bears in order to protect the tourist industry, these claims have never been substantiated. "
    The conspiracy is fact and a particular senator wants the media fully investigated for not just their role in revealing the cover up but also their assertions that drop bears had something in common with the PM and it was nothing to do with that Mad as Hell bloke showing what Black Caviar looked like with a flash looking red wig.

    Meanwhile in a periscopical way I am calling for investors in my company to manufacture and market look up sun glasses that will have mirrors fitted to the rim lower edge such that a forward vision can be maintained at the same time as the tree canopy being peripheral.
    Whathisname, that drop bear alike's fella is taking a prototype over to show the Chinese what another great idea of ours they can manufacture.

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  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I feel this was a disappointing use of April Fool's Day.

    How about a ringing announcement by John Kerry that no more would the US use its intelligence and diplomatic muscle to try and provoke civil wars in countries but would always stress non-violent process to achieve change.

    That would have been far more deliciously risible.

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  4. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I have known tourists to quiver at the mention of drop bears.

    After explaining what to do to avoid drop bear attack, they still seemed unconvinced.

    A safer place is a tourist shop or a pub, and they seem to congregate in both, which gives them safety in numbers.

    I myself avoid walking through dense scrub, not exactly because of drop bears, but because of the possibility of becoming covered in green ants.

    However, I always keep looking up even when walking through open forest.

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  5. Fred Bloggs

    Agent provocateur

    So much for the recent lament about time spent applying for grants...

    The drop-bear gag dropped dead about 40 years ago.

    An article about the way women are mistreated on Australian campuses would have been far funni...oh, wait, that one's been done too; hard to compete with Anne Summers for laugh-a-minute material.

    hmmm, this is harder than it first seemed. I know, how about one on the intellectual freedom given to Australian academics in the humanities? That one's a sure rib-tickler.

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  6. Mike Jubow

    forestry nurseryman

    Volker, do they make these GPS tracking thingos to put on long necked crocs. You don't have to actually go into the water, these buggers have a neck long enough to suddenly reach up and grab whatever is walking alongside our creek up to around 6 metres. Because these things are so dangerous, I want to tag them so I know where they are 24/7. Although it is not really environmentally friendly, I have set up traps involving tethered chickens and a guillotine. Our weekend croc BBQs are well attended!

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  7. Garry Baker

    researcher

    The short answer to all this is to wear the right repellant. The stuff for Drop Bears differs markedly from Emu repellant, for instance. Yes it is hard to come by, given that few resellers are willing to stock the product. However, a pedestrian going into a potential Drop Bear zone can take measures to mitigate the problems. For instance, at least four rashers of semi rancid Bacon, tied in a chain, then placed around ones hat brim helps - Especially if the entire hat is first doused with self raising flour.

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  8. Tim Allman

    Medical Software Developer

    At least you don't live in Canada where polar bears do drop out of trees on unsuspecting hikers and where beavers attack canoe paddles before gnawing holes in the canoe and eating the helpless canoeists.

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  9. Russell Walton

    Retired

    Fortunately there are many Australian men who are prepared to devote their time to protecting young attractive women backpackers from drop bears so the danger is extremely exaggerated

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  10. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Being attacked by a drop bear makes a much better story than being piddled on by a koala.

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  11. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    How pleasant to see something written with humour on these electronic pages rather than the continual articles written by and for the Doom and Gloom Brigade, although I see a couple of them had to put in their five pennyworth!!!!! Yours, Mackinlay

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  12. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Da**, will never look at koalas in the same way. what will you do next, kill Bambi?

    Keep this one out of reach for kids :)
    It's like saying Santa is a lie, but worse :)

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  13. Peter Rutherford

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    Does "you idiot" count as a personal attack?

    If University of Tasmania time has been used to write this "intelligent discussion" volker owes the university a refund.

    volker also needs to read the instuctions about use of this site. See below volker.

    "We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), abuse and defamatory language will not be tolerated. Nor will we tolerate attempts to deliberately disrupt discussions. We aim to maintain The Conversation as an inviting space to focus on intelligent discussions.

    Please be courteous."

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  14. Ian Watkins

    logged in via Facebook

    I note some 'naysayers' on this article, however, I would like to point out that the Thylarctos Plummetus has been seen in recent time as often as the Thylacine and thus still holds a special place in the biology of Australia - after all the Australian Museum carries a definitive entry on the creature. http://australianmuseum.net.au/Drop-Bear if you would like to check.
    I can personally ascribe a 'Drop Bear' experience in the early 1970s near the Barrier landing, Gippsland Lakes, Victoria.
    We were…

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  15. John Hartshorn

    logged in via Facebook

    Volker Jansen has done a great service by informing us about this natural menace.

    Here in the states we don't have that sort of bear to worry about but we do have the relatively safe Brown Bear as well as the more notorious Grizzlies.

    Some years ago the Rangers in Glacier National Park posted the following helpful advice for hikers.

    How To Be Safe from Grizzly Bear Attacks

    Park visitors are advised to wear little bells on their clothes so they make noises when hiking…

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    1. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to John Hartshorn

      5 dopey comments out of 23. That is disturbing because it means that 21.74% of Conversation writers have no sense of humour.
      No wonder the country is going to the dogs (or the bears, perhaps)

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