How Australia’s drop bear got here to be its most dangerous — and most faux — predator
Sydney, Australia (CNN) – Ask almost any Australian about a teardrop bear and they will likely tell of a close encounter with this fangled fangled flesh-eating cousin of the Australian koala.
You could describe how a relative was seriously injured during a fall bear attack, or claim that a friend narrowly escaped death from the vicious carnivore.
And they’ll all lie. The drop bear does not exist.
Many lands have a creature that supposedly exists but is never seen – think dragons, yetis, and the Loch Ness monster.
But there’s a twist with the fall bear. No Australian actually believes it exists – it’s only used to scare people, usually foreign in nature.
This is how it usually works: A tourist is about to go into the bush when an Australian warns him to “watch out for the drop bears”. When they ask what it is, the tourist is told that it is a vicious, claw-like creature that unexpectedly falls from trees.
“They look up at the trees nervously,” said Ian Coate, author and founder of Mythic Australia website. “You get such a nice reaction that it only appeals to the Australian sense of humor.”
But some Australians have taken their fake animal fraud to a whole new level. The Museum of Australia has created a fake information page on their website warning of the dangers of these fictional animals.
“As soon as the prey is in sight, the fall bear falls up to eight meters to pounce on the unsuspecting victim. The first impact often stuns the prey, so that it can be bitten in the neck and quickly suppressed,” it says the website.
Even a little Australian Celebrities take part. When CNN Travel asked Australian film star Chris Hemsworth for advice on avoiding fall bears in 2018, he said, “Bring an umbrella.”
The origins of the drop bear
Despite the drop bear’s popularity and growing international reputation, its actual origins are unknown.
For example, the drop bear legend does not appear to have been triggered by a particular popular book or movie. According to the National Library of Australia, the first appearance of a teardrop bear in an Australian newspaper is a harmless listing in The Canberra Times, the capital’s newspaper, in 1982.
“TAM – beware of teardrop bears in the future, you will definitely love Clint”, says the column “21st birthdays”. It’s not clear who TAM or Clint were.
Some attribute the legend of the teardrop bear to a sketch by legendary Australian comedian and actor Paul Hogan (known to foreigners as Crocodile Dundee) on his show “The Paul Hogan Show,” which aired in the 1970s and 80s.
In one scene, Hogan plays 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 jump from the trees and start devastating Hogan, who falls to the ground.
But Mythic Australia’s Coate said he remembered his Boy Scout guide telling him stories about teardrop bears in the early 1970s, before Hogan even went on the air.
“When you are at the campsite the old fall bear was used when they didn’t want you to leave the camp too far,” he said, adding he was told if he went into the bush, “the fall bears will get She.”
It seems that the teardrop bear has now become a tale to scare tourists off with, but it almost certainly started as a simple ghost story that scared Australian children. Not every Australian grew up with tales of teardrop bears, but those who remember hearing about teardrop bears from their parents, especially people who grew up in the country or in farming communities.
In this picture, which is definitely Photoshoped, a teardrop bear attacks an innocent family.
Courtesy Mythic Australia
Coate said some of the first few visitors to Australia to be frightened by the drop bear may not have been tourists at all.
When Coate was in the Army as part of the Surveying Corps in the late 1980s, he said he sometimes visited soldiers from the UK and US came over to train in the Australian bush and when they did they asked how to avoid Australia’s famously dangerous snakes and spiders.
“The Australians would answer: Forget the snakes and spiders, it’s the teardrop bears that you have to watch out for,” said Coate. He recalled telling visiting soldiers that the only way to keep bears away is to put the Australian vegemite spice on their faces.
“Without exception, our Australian soldiers tossed the visiting soldier a glass of Vegemite and it was a few days before they realized they were Vegemite in the face and doing nothing,” he said with a laugh.
The Drop Bears
However, there is a clear indication of when the mythical teardrop bears entered Australian pop culture.
In 1981 bassist Chris Toms and his New Zealand friend Johnny Batchelor formed a band in Sydney with a melodic post-punk-pop sound – after some thought they decided to call him “The Drop Bears”.
Batchelor said he had never heard of the mythical creature until he came to Australia from New Zealand, but he remembered Toms, who grew up in rural New South Wales, and described it as some sort of Australian ghost story.
“(He said) it was a story that people would tell, to scare you, to tell kids and other things. Tell them to be careful, or (the teardrop bears) I’ll fall down and take you with me, “said Batchelor.
They agreed on the name, but Batchelor said he got tired of it quickly. When they started going to radio stations across Australia to promote their music, he said the first question was almost always the same: “What is a teardrop bear?”
As the Drop Bears tried to achieve more mainstream success, Batchelor said the name had become an “albatross around our necks”.
“It felt like a burden, it felt like that wasn’t what we wanted to be,” he said.
Batchelor said he believed the popularity of the drop bear phenomenon was related not only to the Australian sense of humor, but also to the pride the country has in its dangerous animals.
Even without the drop bears, Australia is famous for its deadly creatures, including a wide variety of sharks, snakes, and two of the most venomous spiders in the world.
“They like to impress people from overseas (with their dangerous animals),” he said. “I think it’s less about telling children about it now than about looking after the traveler.”
The rise of the drop bear
If the Drop Bears had been founded 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 teardrop bear has grown in popularity.
According to Google Trends, the January 2020 search for the teardrop bear overtook both the Loch Ness Monster and the American Jackalope in terms of fictional creatures popularity.
It was backed up by a number of high profile appearances by the drop bear in the Australian media and culture. In 2004, Bundaberg Rum published an ad in which a group of Australians tried to start a conversation with some attractive German backpackers by warning them of the deadly predator.In 2013, the major nature magazine Australian Geographic published an April Fool’s joke article entitled “Drop bears target tourists, according to a study.”
A teardrop bear – we have to make it clear once again that they are photoshopped and not real – prepares to ambush Ian Coate of Mythic Australia.
Courtesy Mythic Australia
As recently as January 2020, a British journalist for ITV went viral after playing a prank on an Australian wildlife park by wearing heavy protective clothing before getting a drop bear to hold onto. (It was just a koala.)
Only after the visibly nervous journalist had given the koala in did it emerge that it was just a normal animal and not a deadly predator.
With the drop bear joke now even featured on regular travel sites, Australia’s national joke is spreading around the world faster than ever. But while he’s not a fan of his close association with the fake predator, Drop Bear co-founder Batchelor said that the myth may have lost some of its impact as it rose to prominence.
“(Maybe) it changes the force,” said Batchelor. “You see so many things on the Internet that it could all get boring. When someone tells a funny scary story about a creepy creature, it’s more real to you,” he said.
And in an ironic twist, the suggestion recently surfaced that there might once have been a deadly predator in Australia that fell from trees to attack its prey.
Archaeological evidence suggests a prehistoric marsupial lion called Thylacoleo carnifex that lived and hunted in Australia thousands of years ago and may have had the ability to climb and jump from trees. Some have suggested that this is the real origin of the teardrop bear myth.
Mythic Australia’s Coates is now writing children’s books about the drop bear to encourage young Australians to be proud of their national legends. Coates said the point of the Drop Bear legend was not just to scare people, but to bring them together.
“It’s just fun building a relationship. It means two people in the joke. It’s that Australian way of laughing and getting people into a joke and illuminating a situation,” he said.