The standard explanation for the owlbear in-universe is "A Wizard Did It." Which is fine, as far as it goes, because the trope of "madman tinkering with bizarre mutations" is part of our speculative fiction ethos.

But what fractured mind actually came up with putting together the owl and the bear? In real life, I mean, as something to put in a D&D book? Mechanically it's just a funny-looking bear--it's big, fuzzy, has claw and bite attacks, and lives in the woods. What inspired the owlbear? If it was made up out of whole cloth, whose brain did it spring from?

owlbear illustration from the original 1977 Monster Manual

And why does it look like that? A simple image search suggests that's possibly the least frightening possible depiction of the terrifying blend of bear and owl.


It's based on a toy.

And that's all most sources will give you, because they're drawing from an article (Ed Greenwood's "Ecology of the Rust Monster" in Dragon #88, later quoted by another article of the same name in issue #346) which is actually about the rust monster, and only passingly mentions the owlbear. In fact, the original quote is so vague it's hard to tell if they actually mean to say the owlbear shares the same origin as the rust monster (a plastic toy).

But Tony DiTerlizzi gives us photos of the actual toy which inspired this freaky creature, and so here it is, the original owlbear:

plastic yellow/orange toy identical to owlbear, posing with its nearly identical Monster Manual illustration

It comes from a pack of early 1970s cheap plastic toys depicting "prehistoric animals," most of them entirely made up. Look, you can see the bulette and the rust monster, too:

line-up of silly-looking animal toys; I like the Spanielsaurus

The origin of these toys is from Hong Kong, where they made these toys to resemble monsters from the 1960's famous UltraMan TV show. source

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also looks like an early destrachan in red there on the right. \$\endgroup\$ – Filkin Mar 10 '14 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Filkin You mean the spanielsaurus? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Mar 10 '14 at 20:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I had these guys! Well, some of them. That rusty colored one with the green eyes, and the weird bird in the back. \$\endgroup\$ – Skalderdash Dec 30 '17 at 13:33

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