Bears in Australia: Myth or Reality?

Written by Deniz Martinez
Updated: October 24, 2023
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Australia is full of amazing wildlife, including many species found nowhere else in the world. But does Australia have its own native bear? Read on to find out!

Australia’s Mythical “Drop Bear”

Watch out for drop bears!

©CH-romer, CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

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The “drop bear” is a joke that the entire nation of Australia collectively shares. This tall tale describes a vicious, carnivorous incarnation of a koala “bear” (more on those quotes in a moment) that drops down from the trees onto the heads of unsuspecting travelers. Rest assured, however, that this predatory koala is just a hoax created to scare tourists and the like.

Real Koalas: Not Bears!

Animals with Opposable Thumbs-koala

Don’t be fooled by that adorable bearish face — koalas are not bears!

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

In addition to the drop bear being a myth, the real-life koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) being a “bear” is also not true. Despite their faces and bodies exhibiting some superficial similarities to bears, koalas are, in fact, marsupials. Marsupials are an entirely different clade of mammals from placentals, which is what true bears are.

Where Real Bears Live

Giant panda bears in forest tree

Unlike koalas, giant pandas actually are real bears — but they only live in China.

©iStock.com/Hung Chung Chih

True bears are mammals in the family Ursidae, which includes eight living species:

  1. American black bear (Ursus americanus): North America
  2. Asiatic black bear aka moon bear (Ursus thibetanus): Asia
  3. brown bear (Ursus arctos): North America, Europe, Asia
  4. giant panda, aka panda bear (Alluropoda melanoleuca): Asia
  5. polar bear (Ursus maritimus): North America, Europe, Asia (Arctic)
  6. sloth bear aka Indian bear (Melursus ursinus): Asia (Indian Subcontinent)
  7. spectacled bear aka Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus): South America
  8. sun bear (Helarctos malayanus): Asia

As noted above, only four of the world’s seven continents currently have bears: North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. In addition, Africa historically had at least one native bear, the Atlas bear (Ursus arctos crowtheri), a subspecies of the brown bear. Unfortunately, this bear was hunted to extinction in the 19th century.

Australia, however, is not known to have ever had any bear species, even in prehistoric times.

Conclusion

Unless you count the bears currently in zoos, Australia is 100% bearless. “Drop bears” are just a modern folklore hoax. Furthermore, the real animals they are based on, koala “bears,” are not bears at all but rather marsupials. None of the world’s eight living species of real bears are native to the Australian continent.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Windzepher


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About the Author

Deniz Martinez is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on biogeography, ornithology, and mammalogy. Deniz has been researching, teaching, and writing about animals for over 10 years and holds both an MS degree from American Public University earned in 2016 and an MA degree from Lindenwood University earned in 2022. A resident of Pennsylvania, Deniz also runs Art History Animalia, a website and associated social media dedicated to investigating intersections of natural history with art & visual culture history via exploring animal iconography.

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