They might describe how a relative was gravely injured during a drop bear attack, or claim that a friend narrowly escaped death at the hands of the vicious carnivore.
And they’ll all be lying. The drop bear does not exist.
Many countries have a creature which is rumored to exist but is never seen — think dragons, yetis and the Loch Ness monster.
But with the drop bear, there’s a twist. No Australian actually believes it exists — it’s just used to scare people, normally of the foreign variety.
Here’s how it usually works: A tourist is about to head into the bush when an Australian will warn them to “watch out for the drop bears.” When they ask what that is, the tourist will be told it is a vicious, clawed creature that drops unexpectedly from trees.
“You get them looking up at the trees, nervous,” said Ian Coate, author and founder of the website Mythic Australia. “You get such a beautiful reaction, it just appeals to that Aussie sense of humor.”
“Once prey is within view, the Drop Bear will drop as much as eight meters to pounce on top of the unsuspecting victim. The initial impact often stuns the prey, allowing it to be bitten on the neck and quickly subdued,” the website reads.
The origins of the drop bear
Despite the drop bear’s popularity and growing international reputation, its actual origins are unknown.
The drop bear legend doesn’t appear to have been sparked by a particular popular book or film, for example. According to the the National Library of Australia, the first appearance of a drop bear in an Australian newspaper is an innocuous listing in “The Canberra Times,” the paper for the national capital, in 1982..
Some trace the legend of the drop bear back to a sketch by legendary Australian comedian and actor Paul Hogan (best known to foreigners as Crocodile Dundee), on his show “The Paul Hogan Show” which aired in the 1970s and 80s.
In one scene, Hogan is playing a parody of Indiana Jones called “Cootamundra Hoges,” who is exploring the fictional “Valley of Goannas” when he is attacked by killer koalas.
The koalas leap from the trees and begin savaging Hogan, who falls to the ground covered in them.
But Mythic Australia’s Coate said that he remembered his scout leader telling him stories of drop bears in the early 1970s, before Hogan even went to air.
“When you’re out camping, the old drop bear was used when they didn’t want you to leave the camp grounds too far,” he said, adding he was told if he went into the bush, “the drop bears will get you.”
It seems that while the drop bear has now become a tale with which to scare tourists, it almost certainly began as a simple ghost story used to spook Australian children. Not every Australian grew up with stories of drop bears, but those who do remember being told about drop bears by their parents, especially people who grew up in the country or in farming communities.
In this picture, which is definitely photoshopped, a drop bear attacks an innocent family.
Courtesy Mythic Australia
Coate said that some of the first visitors to Australia to be spooked by the drop bear might not have been tourists at all.
When Coate was in the army in the late 1980s as part of the survey corps, he said that sometimes visiting soldiers from the UK and US would come over to do exercises out in the Australian bush and, when they did, they’d ask about how to avoid Australia’s famously dangerous snakes and spiders.
“The Australians would reply, Forget the snakes and spiders, it’s the drop bears you have to look out for,” Coate said. He recalled telling visiting soldiers the only way to keep away drop bears was to smear the Australian condiment Vegemite on their faces.
“Invariably, our Aussie soldiers would chuck the visiting soldier a jar of Vegemite and it would take them a few days to catch on that they’re Vegemite on their face and it wasn’t doing anything,” he said, laughing.
The Drop Bears
There is, however, one clear marker of when the mythical drop bears began to enter Australian pop culture.
Batchelor said that until he came to Australia from New Zealand he had never heard of the mythical creature, but he recalled Toms, who had grown up in rural New South Wales, describing it as a bit of an Australian ghost story.
“(He said) it was a story that people would tell to scare you, to tell kids and stuff. Tell them you’ve got to be wary or (the drop bears) will drop down and take you,” Batchelor said.
They agreed to the name, but Batchelor said that he quickly grew tired of it. When they began to visit radio stations around Australia to promote their music, he said the first question was almost always the same — “what is a drop bear?”
As the Drop Bears tried to achieve more mainstream success, Batchelor said the name became an “albatross around our neck.”
“It felt like a burden, it felt like that wasn’t what we wanted to be,” he said.
Batchelor said that he thinks the popularity of the drop bear phenomenon isn’t just tied to the Australian sense of humor but also to the pride that the country takes in their dangerous animals.
“They like to impress people from overseas (with their dangerous animals),” he said. “I think it’s less about telling kids now and more about beware the traveler.”
The rise of the drop bear
If the Drop Bears had been formed just 20 years later, they might not have had to explain their name so often. In the age of the internet, the myth of the drop bear has only grown in popularity.
In January 2020, according to Google Trends, searches for the drop bear overtook both the Loch Ness Monster and the American jackalope in terms of fictional-creature popularity.
A drop bear — again, we need to clarify that they are photoshopped and not real — prepares to ambush Mythic Australia’s Ian Coate.
Courtesy Mythic Australia
It was only after the visibly nervous journalist handed off the koala that it became apparent it was just a regular animal and not a deadly predator.
“(Maybe) it changes the power of it,” Batchelor said. “You see such a lot of stuff on the internet, it might all become bland. Whereas when someone is telling a fun scary story about some scary creature, it’s more real to you,” he said.
And in an ironic twist, suggestion has emerged recently that there may have once been a deadly predator in Australia who did drop from trees to attack its prey.
Mythic Australia’s Coates now writes books for children about the drop bear to help encourage young Australians to take pride in their national legends. Coates said the point of the drop bear legend isn’t just to scare people, but rather bring them together.
“It’s just fun that helps build a relationship, it means two people are sharing in the joke … It’s that Aussie way of laughing and bringing people in on a joke and making light of a situation,” he said.