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SYDNEY (CNN) — Ask almost any Australian about a drop bear, and they'll likely recount a close encounter with this carnivorous, fanged cousin of the Australian koala.
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."
But some Australians have taken its fake animal hoax to an entirely new level. The Museum of Australia has created a fake information page on its website, which warns of the dangers of these fictitious animals.
"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.
Even some Australian celebrities are in on the joke. When CNN Travel asked Australian film star Chris Hemsworth for advice on avoiding drop 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.
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..
"TAM — Beware of drop bears in the future, for sure, totally love Clint," a message in the 21st Birthdays column reads. It isn't clear who TAM or Clint were.
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.
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.
In 1981, bass player Chris Toms and his New Zealander friend Johnny Batchelor formed a band in Sydney with a post-punk, melodic pop sound — after some deliberation, they decided to name it "The Drop Bears."
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.
Even without the drop bears, Australia is famous for its deadly creatures, including a wide variety of sharks, snakes and two of the world's most poisonous spiders.
"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.
It's been helped along by a number of high-profile appearances by the drop bear in Australian media and culture. In 2004, Bundaberg Rum released an ad in which a group of Australians try to strike up a conversation with some attractive German backpackers by warning them about the deadly predator.
In 2013, major nature magazine Australian Geographic released an April Fool's day article titled, "Drop bears target tourists, study says."
As recently as January 2020, a UK journalist for ITV went viral after she was pranked by an Australian wildlife park, during which she was dressed in heavy protective gear before being given a "drop bear" to hold. (It was just a koala.)
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.
With the drop bear joke now even being mentioned on regular travel sites, Australia's national joke on the world is spreading faster than ever. But despite not being a fan of his close association with the fake predator, co-founder of the Drop Bears Batchelor said that maybe the myth was losing some of its impact as it became more widely known.
"(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.
Archaeological evidence points to a prehistoric marsupial lion, named thylacoleo carnifex, which lived and hunted in Australia thousands of years ago, and possibly had the ability to climb and leap from trees. Some have suggested this is the true origin of the drop bear myth.
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.
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