Authors: Karl P.N. Shuker
Regrettably, however, as Ivan Mackerle and his fellow investigators can readily testify, such success continues to elude those who seek this evanescent monster.
From 1946 to 1949, the U.S.S.R/s Academy of Sciences launched a series of expeditions into the Gobi, led by Dr. Yuri Orlov. In 1946, Ivan Antonovich Efremov (=Yephremov), a Russian paleontologist, took part in one of these, which he later documented in his book
(“The Wind’s Path”) (1958). During the expedition, Danzang, a young geologist who could speak the local Mongolian dialect, was instructed to inquire about the death worm with an elderly man, Tseveng, from Dalandzadgad. Danzang himself had never heard of the death worm, so he expected to be harshly rebuffed or derided by Tseveng for wasting his time. Instead, to Danzang’s great surprise, Tseveng informed him that he was indeed aware of this creature, and that although he had not spied it personally, he had been informed about it on many different occasions from other Gobi nomads.
According to Tseveng, the death worm could kill with a single stroke and inhabited a barren expanse of wasteland known as Khaldzan-dzakh, roughly 80 miles southeast of Dalandzadgad. Here it remained hidden beneath the sand dunes for most of the year, but surfaced during the summer months of June and July.
When Danzang translated Tseveng’s words, the Russian geologists began to joke about the death worm’s alleged killing abilities, which greatly angered the elderly Mongol. Scowling with rage, he fired off a terse volley of words before abruptly departing—words which, when interpreted by Danzang, left the team in no doubt as to the very real fear engendered among the local people by this formidable beast:
You laugh only because you know nothing and understand nothing. The
—it is a terrible thing!
Efremov speculated that the Mongol nomads’ death worm traditions and lore may derive from some “living fossil,” perpetuating its line from prehistory into historic times—but which, if not already recently extinct, is now very rare, persisting only in the most remote areas of Central Asia.
was the publication in 1954 of
(translated into English by O. Gorchakov, and also appearing in French as
, a collection of science fiction tales. Indeed, Efremov is actually more famous as a SF writer than as a paleontologist. In the introduction to this collection, Efremov wrote:
To try to lift the curtain of mystery over these roads, to speak of scientific achievements yet to come as realities, and in this way to lead the reader to the most advanced outposts of science— such are the tasks of science-fiction, as I see them.
One of those “scientific achievements yet to come as realities” is of particular interest to cryptozoology because among his stories in this collection is one titled “Olgoï-Khorkhoï.” And sure enough, its theme is none other than the fatal discovery by a geological party of the Gobi’s infamous death worm! Clearly inspired by local testimony that he had gathered during his own Gobi expedition, Efremov’s tale contained a detailed account of the
, corresponding with the reports documented elsewhere by Ivan Mackerle and others—including its lethal power of apparent electrocution.
In the story, two worms killed some of the party’s members even without physically touching them, again echoing true-life nomad lore. However, an intriguing additional detail contained in Efremov’s science-fiction story is that immediately before the worms killed their victims, they writhed in a spiral and changed color—becoming purple with bright blue tips. Could this be a facet of death worm behavior collected by Efremov during his Gobi expedition of 1946 but not noted in
In 1966, Y. Tsevel’s notable dictionary of the Mongol language,
Mongol Khelnii Tovttch Tailbar Toli
, included an entry for the
. This described it as a Gobi-inhabiting worm that resembles a huge intestine and is extremely venomous.
Speaking of dictionaries: Ivan Mackerle has revealed to me a fascinating snippet of information indicating that the death worm is known not only in Mongolia but also in Kazakhstan. Reading through a Mongolian-Kazakh dictionary, he discovered that the Kazakhs have their own term for the
Altajn Tsaadakh Govd
(1987) by Mongolian author Dondogijn Tsevegmid (=Cevegmid) documents the wide deserts and beautiful mountains lying to the south and southwest of the Altai Mountains—a vast region colloquially termed the Behind-Altai Gobi. It also provides several Altai-based cryptozoological snippets, including items mentioning Mongolia’s famous man-beast, the
, as well as a lesser-known version, the
For our purposes, however, the most noteworthy section is one that deals with the death worm, and also with what may be a related yet equally unidentifiable mystery beast—not to mention a self-inflating hedgehog! It reads as follows:
At that time, a local herdsman from Noyon sumyn [village] in Oemnoegov aimak [country] talked about the
“I was riding my camel along the Tost mountains. Suddenly I spotted a long yellow animal in front of me. It looked like neither fox nor wolf…My camel started to cry out in fear, and its cry attracted others of the same creature, which began to come out of their holes in the ground and approach me. So I took flight with fear. When I turned my head while riding away, I saw about 50 of the creatures following me. Luckily for me, I met some nomads, riding against me. They told me that they were
, living underground. Lately they are rare.
“In the west part of the Segs Cagan Bogd mountains lives a strange animal, the
. I met one once while hunting. It sat on a big stone, with its head erect, which inflated. It smacked its tail on the stone with such force that the noise it made was as loud as the sound of a camel’s gallop. Because I had heard that the
can reach the size of a yurta [big tent] by inflating, I decided to take flight.”
In addition to these two strange animals, another, more dangerous animal also lives in the Gobi, the
. It resembles an intestine filled with blood, and it travels underground. Its movement can be detected from above via the waves of sand that it displaces.
It is difficult to decide whether the
is beast or balloon! And it seems likely that the herdsman’s account of the
was enhanced by more than a little imaginative license. Nonetheless, we should not ignore the fact that whatever this creature is, it has its own specific local name, and I am not aware of any species whose morphology and activity recalls that of these peculiar yellow worms. As for the death worm, the description cited above corresponds well with the version given by many independent sources elsewhere.
Another Mongolian author who has alluded to the death worm is S. Dzhambaldorzh in
Mongol Nuucyn Chelchee
(“Braid of Mongolian Secrets”) (1990), which includes a section titled “The most interesting rare worm in the world.” This is of particular value, as it presents some information publicized in 1930 by Soviet scientist A.D. Simukov.
Simukov died while being transported to the Gulag, and all of his archives were supposedly destroyed. Clearly, however, some of his data concerning the death worm must have survived, which Dzhambaldorzh later uncovered and preserved for future generations by incorporating it within his own book:
is an animal that lives in Dzagsuudzh Gobi. The people there speak a great deal about it, and are afraid of it. It comes out onto the surface of the ground mainly after the rain, when the ground is wet. They say that its colour is white. The
is a reptile unknown to the scientists, an amphibian, or a giant worm. It lives in hot hollows with saxaul plants, underground. The biggest is as thick as an arm, and about 1 m [three feet] long. The tail is short, as if it were cut off [i.e. truncated], but not tapered. The head is not distinguishable. This is what Soviet scientist A.D. Simukov wrote in 1930.
Much of this has since been substantiated by Ivan Mackerle’s conversations with the nomads during his two expeditions, but there is one striking discrepancy—the worm’s color. All other sources have claimed that the worm is red, but according to Simukov it is white. Is it possible that Simukov had inadvertently confused descriptions of some other species of animal with those of the death worm? There is, after all, the equally mysterious yellow worm or
already on file.
Dzhambaldorzh added a further twist to this tale by including a very curious report concerning what appears to be a death worm with wings! Penned by geographer B. Avirmed from the Mongolian Geographical Institute, this report had first appeared in 1981 in a Mongolian newspaper. It featured the eyewitness testimony of a Mongolian shepherd:
Shepherd L. Chorloo (Khorlaw) from Chongor Gobi in the south Gobi aimak (country) stated: “Here we see an interesting creature. Its body looks like salami, half of which is taken up by the head, and on the rear it has wings. I have seen it twice. On both occasions it was lying dead at the well.”
In 1991, Avirmed and P. Tsolmon co-authored a more extensive article, in the Mongolian magazine
Shinzhlekh Ukhaan Amàrai
. This included a sighting from 1982 of an unidentified beast in the Altai region of western Mongolia by B. Boldoos, a driver working for an expedition sent to the Chovd area by the Mongolian Academy of Science’s Chemical Institute. The expedition’s original driver, a man called Manalzhav, had become ill, and was replaced by Boldoos, who arrived by airplane. He was then collected by some of the expedition’s members in a car and driven to the camp:
During the journey from the airport to the camp, they stopped at a place called Eezh Chairchan to have a rest and stay overnight. As they got out of the car and looked down at the ground, they saw a strange trace in the sand, forming right before their eyes. It looked as if something was moving under the sand, displacing a wave of sand above it. Out of the car stepped Boldoos’s friend, Altanchuiag, who took a shovel, and when he scraped away the moving sand, a strange animal with spade-like paws jumped out and immediately buried itself again. It was beige in colour, was similar in length to [? - Ivan Mackerle was unable to translate this Mongolian word], and at the rear of its body it had paws or legs, but they did not move. The frightened men quickly withdrew.
Whatever Boldoos’s sand-digging animal is, it bears little or no resemblance to the death worm, and exists not in the Gobi of southern Mongolia but in the Altai of western Mongolia. Consequently, I would not normally have included it in the present article—were it not for the perplexing testimony of the Mongol shepherd, whose “winged salami” beast constitutes a morphologically (albeit mystifyingly) intermediate creature between the “true” death worm and Boldoos’s vaguely defined mystery beast.
The earliest of Ivan Mackerle’s death worm articles in my files was published in 1991 by the Czech magazine
, and another Czech magazine,
, published a similar article by Ivan in 1992. The earliest of Ivan’s English-language death worm articles also appeared in 1992, within the September/October issue of
The Faithist Journal
, and was identical to his aforementioned
article from 1994.
The year 1993 saw the publication of the first cryptozoology-oriented book to include mention of the death worm. Entitled
Legendární Pfísery a Skutecná Zvifata
, its author was Jaroslav Mares, the Czech Republic’s premier cryptozoologist, who devoted an entire chapter to the Gobi’s cryptic denizen.
My own series of death worm writings began in 1995, with a section devoted to this cryptid appearing in the second of my “Menagerie of Mystery” columns for
(fall 1995). My second death worm article appeared in the March 1996 issue of
Wild About Animals
, summarizing the information that I had presented in more detailed form within my
account. It also included a superb color reconstruction by artist Philippa Foster (née Coxall) of the worm’s likely appearance in two different poses—lying concealed beneath the sand but ready to discharge electricity, and in the act of squirting forth its deadly venom.