Authors: Karl P.N. Shuker
Ivan Mackerle’s extensive
article was published in June 1996, which was essentially an expanded version of his
Faithist Journal/World Explorer
article, and contained a number of new illustrations, including two artistic reconstructions of the death worm, and a photo of the
plants. These appeared in black and white.
Lubos Kolácek published a lengthy article in Prague’s
newspaper on September 21, 1996, covering the “Olgoj Chorchoj Expedition 1996” featuring Miroslav Náplava and Petr Horky, and including some photos of the team members. As pointed out in the article, however, the death worm was not the only subject of interest to this particular expedition, which focused extensively upon the Gobi nomads themselves, as well as an erstwhile Mongolian cryptid—Przewalski’s wild horse, undescribed by science until 1881.
Also published in September 1996,
The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Natural and Paranormal Mysteries
was the first of my books to refer to the death worm. Chapter 4, titled “Asia: The Occult and the Orient,” contained a short account of Mongolia’s cryptid, accompanied by Philippa Foster’s full-color death worm picture.
A few weeks later, the death worm made its
debut, via my article in
Fortean Times Weird Year 1996
, presenting a concise history of this beast. I titled it “Do Nomads Dream of Electric Worms?”—Philip K. Dick aficionados will explain!
An article by Jaroslav Mares assessing the death worm appeared in 1996 within the Czech magazine
, as #25 in a series of articles dealing with cryptids. The title of the series, “Na Stopë Tajemnych Zvirat,” translates into English as “On the Track of Unknown Animals.” Now where have I come across that title before?
In his account, Mares recalled a very shocking anecdote—literally!—collected by him from a local herdsman while seeking dinosaur bones at Nemeght in 1967:
“My brother living in Obotó Chajun aimak knew a man who encountered an
one herdsman told me. “His name was Altan. Once he returned with a friend from a neighbouring camp. They were riding their horses, and it was just after noon, on a day in July. The sun was shining….
“Suddenly Altan’s friend’s horse fell down. The rider stood up and went to the horse, but suddenly cried out and fell again. Altan was 5 metres behind and saw a big fat worm slowly crawling away. Altan stood in horror and then ran to his friend. But he was dead, and so too was his horse.”
Also on my files for 1996 is a detailed article by Ivan Mackerle concerning his expeditions that appeared on December 13,1996, in the Czech publication
. It included a computer-reconstructed image of the death worm’s likely appearance, portraying it with a thick, extensively annulated (ringed) body and indistinguishable, featureless poles.
In February 1997, an in-depth article of mine documenting the death worm appeared in
Uri Geller’s Encounters
, and included several of Ivan’s color photos—depicting scenes from his expeditions, the
plants, and full-color reconstructions of the worm itself. I also presented an extensive analysis of the worm’s feasible taxonomie identity.
In March, the death worm entered the rarefied realm of Britain’s “quality newspapers.” Jonathan Leake, the
environment correspondent, consulted with me in relation to a major feature that he was preparing on cryptozoology, and one of the cryptids whose details I supplied to him was the
. His article was published on March 23, 1997, and contained a glorious full-color reconstruction of a triffid-lookalike death worm in the process of spewing forth its vitriolic venom. The report attracted notable media interest. The following morning, I spoke about the death worm live on Radio 4’s
program, and have publicized it on a number of other shows since then.
But that was not all. I was soon to learn that the devastating death worm had even penetrated cyberspace, with several websites devoted to it and countless references to it on others. Also in 1997, the death worm was the subject of a French Internet article by Michel Raynal. It was originally posted in his Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie website, but it was also published in a two-part hard copy form by the Belgian magazine
in its June and July-August issues. (Throughout his article, Raynal referred to the death worm as the “intestine worm”—a direct translation of
—but I consider this to be an unsatisfactory name, best avoided, because it readily invites confusion with tapeworms and other parasitic worms inhabiting the intestinal tract of their hosts.)
More recently, as the
Guinness Book of Records’
cryptozoological consultant, I was asked to suggest some cryptids that could readily slot into their superlative-structured format. One of those that I put forward for consideration was the death worm, and in the 1998 edition it duly appeared as “Most Dangerous Mystery Animal?”
In the years since then, numerous accounts concerning the death worm in hard-copy and online form have appeared, and this relative newcomer to the cryptozoological stage seems destined to inspire many more in the future.
With no physical evidence available for study it is impossible to state categorically that the death worm is real. It may be entirely the product of native folklore and superstition. However, for the purpose of conducting a cryptozoological analysis of its taxonomie identity, we must assume that it is real—but I must reiterate that this is merely an assumption, not a fact. Yet even if we agree to suspend disbelief in this way, how similar is the “real” death worm to the version described by the nomads? Put another way, the death worm could be:
(a) A real, but harmless species, with its various death-dealing capabilities merely the product of native folklore and fear;
(b) A real species equipped with the capability of emitting a highly toxic venom and/or able to generate and discharge electricity.
As for its taxonomie status, several options come to mind, and each will now be assessed.
A profound problem with the word “worm” is that even in zoological parlance, let alone the general English language, it has been applied to a vast range of wholly unrelated animals—almost anything, in fact, that is long, relatively slender, limbless, and alive. Snakes, legless lizards, certain serpentine fishes, limbless insect larvae, and most of the invertebrate phyla have all at one time or another been referred to as worms. From a taxonomie standpoint, therefore, the word is wholly valueless as a source of clues regarding this cryptid’s status.
Nevertheless, by comparing and contrasting the death worm’s profile with that of each taxonomie group whose members loosely conform to the “worm stereotype” outlined above, we may indeed gain some pointers as to its most plausible identity.
Of the many invertebrate taxa referred to colloquially as “worms,” only the segmented worms or annelids offer any realistic candidature in relation to the death worm’s identity. Characterized by species whose bodies are composed of numerous ring-like segments and hence are also known as ringed worms (derived from “Annelida”), this phylum comprises three principal taxonomie groups—the polychaetes (including the familiar lugworms and ragworms), leeches, and oligochaetes. Of these, the only ones exhibiting any degree of similarity to the death worm are the oligochaetes—which include among their membership not only many freshwater species, such as
, but also the earthworms.
Could it be that the death worm is nothing more than a novel species of earthworm? Its elongated body and featureless poles— lacking an externally differentiated head or tail, and any visible sensory organs or mouth—certainly recall the basic earthworm configuration. So too does its fossorial lifestyle, and tendency to emerge onto the surface following rainfall. Even its strange mode of locomotion has been likened to the motion of a worm by Ivan Mackerle: “like a worm, it contracts and expands, or squirms to move about.” This description encourages comparison with earthworms’ familiar peristaltic movements, referred to in zoological parlance as vermiform locomotion.
Moreover, if we suppose that reports describing the death worm’s ability to squirt poison at anyone approaching too closely are genuine, as this creature appears to lack eyes it must sense the arrival of persons, camels, and other creatures via their footsteps’ vibrations—and sensitivity to terrestrial vibrations is a well-known characteristic of earthworms.
The death worm’s fairly large size, ranging from 18 inches to five feet, according to local testimony, does not preclude an earthworm identity, either. One of Australia’s most celebrated non-marsupial animals is its giant earthworm
, from Victoria, which can attain a total length of 13 feet. Nor is this the largest species on record. That honor goes to South Africa’s
—one specimen of which, collected in 1936 by Van Heerden, measured a stupendous 22 feet!
Some species of earthworm also exhibit a remarkable talent more than a little reminiscent of one of the death worm’s alleged abilities. Known aptly as squirter earthworms, they are typified by
, which is native to New South Wales and able to defend itself by squirting jets of internal fluid for distances of up to 18 inches out of small pores surrounding its body. Although the fluid is totally harmless, its emission in this manner is more than adequate to startle and deter would-be predators.
Recalling the nomads’ reports, could it be that the death worm is a dramatically new species of squirter earthworm, one that has developed a highly toxic squirting fluid? Although such a notion is undeniably radical, it is not impossible. Indeed, the death worm need not even be responsible for creating the toxin.
As noted earlier, Ivan Mackerle has suggested that the
may obtain its venom from the poisonous roots of the saxaul, or from its parasite, the
plant, with which this mysterious animal is reputedly closely associated. If so, this is very interesting but hardly unprecedented. Many poisonous species of animal derive their toxins from external sources, including South America’s famous arrow-poison frogs, whose skin contains deadly lipophilic alkaloid poisons (used by Indian tribes to tip their arrows), but which are now known to be derived from the ants that these amphibians eat.
Regardless of origin, however, the mystery remains as to how such a toxin would function, bearing in mind that it is supposed to be instantly fatal, yet is merely squirted by the worm at its victim—rather than physically injected into it, as with venomous snakes or comparable predators. According to the old woman Puret, everything touched by this substance, even metal, looks as if it had been corroded by an acid. Always assuming, of course, that such a substance is indeed more than just a myth, perhaps, therefore, the death worm’s expelled fluid is an exceedingly acidic, fast-acting toxin that achieves its deadly effect by searing its way through the victim’s flesh and thence into its blood system.
Another apparent enigma associated with reports of the death worm’s poison is the claim that it loses its strength from the end of June onwards, after which it is not always fatal. In fact, as the worm is usually encountered only during June and July anyway, this attenuation of the poison’s potency is not so strange. After all, the worm never consumes any of its victims, so its poison has clearly not evolved as a means for obtaining food. Instead, it evidently functions as a defense mechanism, serving solely to protect the worm from would-be attackers or predators. Consequently, there is no evolutionary advantage to the worm in manufacturing a poison in lethal concentrations during the ten months when this species is usually hidden from danger beneath the desert sands.
Conversely, as a wholly alternative scenario, perhaps the death worm is a squirter earthworm whose fluid is indeed harmless after all—but because of its body’s large robust form, its squirting effect is sufficiently dramatic to have nurtured a superstitious, erroneous fear among the Mongol nomads that it is actually extremely venomous. Even so, whereas squirter earthworms emit fluid all along their body, the death worm supposedly expels its deadly emission only from the tip of one end of its body—a notable discrepancy.
The nomads do not seem to have any knowledge regarding the death worm’s diet, but, ironically, this ignorance might actually substantiate an earthworm identity for it. Like earthworms, the death worm may possess only a tiny, visibly insignificant mouth, and simply feed upon decaying organic matter. It may also ingest sand while burrowing (just as earthworms ingest soil), absorbing into its gut organic material present in the sand, then defecating the sand. It might also absorb nutrients directly through its skin.
Similarly, as it does not appear to have any visible nasal aperture^), the death worm may respire through its skin too. Most oligochaetes do this, containing within their outer skin layer an extensive capillary network that often confers a bright red coloration upon their skin. Could this also explain the deep red coloration reported for the death worm?
These, then, are among the more positive features allying the death worm with the earthworms. However, there are also some shortcomings to take into account. The most serious of these stems from the death worm’s habitat—the Gobi desert.
Such an environment is the absolute antithesis of the preferred domain of earthworms, which require moist, damp environs due to their permeable body surface. Earthworms placed in arid environments would rapidly dry out and die, unless a species could evolve that displayed the fundamental requirement for invertebrate survival here—an impervious external cuticle. Spiders, scorpions, and other desert-dwelling arthropods all possess a cuticle of this nature, but as yet no such adaptation has been recorded from oligochaetes.