Authors: Karl P.N. Shuker
One important matter needing to be discussed here, however, is the precise shape of the death worm’s anterior and posterior body regions. Some reports seem to imply that the ends of its body are blunt or truncated. In marked contrast, however, is the eyewitness report quoted earlier in this chapter, in which she claimed that the death worm was “bound into points at both ends.” This suggests that it was not blunt but pointed at each end (as depicted in Philippa Foster’s picture)—and, if so, this description does accord well with the narrow-necked, spine-tailed morphology of the death adder.
One notable problem with a serpent identity for the death worm, at least on first reflection, is Ivan Mackerle’s assertion that it moves in a worm-like manner by contracting and expanding its body. Snakes, conversely, typically move via horizontal undulations, but as I noted when discussing the amphisbaenids, some snakes can perform concertina (rectilinear) locomotion. Moreover, in a separate section of his letter to me of October 1996, Prof. Cloudsley-Thompson also offered this as an explanation for the apparent locomotory contradiction between death worm and snake:
[Having suggested a species of death adder as a possible identity] this leaves the problem of expansion and contraction of the body. Could this not be explained in terms of rectilinear movement? (Angus Bellairs called it “concertina” movement, which does suggest contraction and expansion of the body.) In every case of this, waves of muscular contraction pass posteriorly over the muscular under surface of the body while the animal is in motion. Apparently many snakes can move in this way although it is most noticeable in boas and vipers. Rectilinear locomotion is used chiefly when stalking prey or moving through narrow spaces.
Here, then, is a very satisfactory reconciliation between the allegedly worm-like movements of the death worm and an ophidian identity.
Another aspect of the death worm’s movements that can be linked with snake locomotion is its alleged “sideways sweeping about.” It is well known that certain desert snakes, notably the American sidewinder rattlesnake
and the Namibian sidewinder viper
, move across the sand via a peculiar laterally directed mode of locomotion known as sidewinding. This serves two purposes. It enables the snake to move readily across a highly unstable substratum that would otherwise pose great problems for a limbless animal. And as sidewinding involves raising portions of its body up off the surface, the snake is successfully limiting its body’s extent of contact with the hot sand. Judging from the nomads’ description of its movements, perhaps the death worm performs a type of sidewinding too? Ivan Mackerle has noted that it leaves a “wavy trail” when moving on the surface of the sand— reminiscent of the J-shaped traces left by sidewinding snakes?
As for temperature conditions: all that I have already discussed in relation to amphisbaenids and lizards applies to desert snakes too. So not even a snake identity can explain why the death worm should only emerge during the two hottest Gobi months.
Three identities remain to be considered here, as they have been proposed in the past. In my opinion, however, they are all highly unlikely, to say the very least.
Ivan Mackerle has informed me that Dr. Namhajdorz, a Mongolian zoologist, considers that the death worm may actually be an unknown species of large poisonous insect, allied to the European bombardier beetles
spp. (belonging to the carabid family of ground beetles), or an undescribed species of ant-lion. Every species of bombardier beetle can emit a fine spray of noxious fluid from its abdomen’s tip as a defense mechanism, precisely directing the spray at an attacker in order to startle it into releasing the beetle. This, no doubt, is what inspired Namhajdorz to consider these insects as a death worm identity.
Personally, however, I fail to see how even a uniquely large bombardier beetle (those currently documented by science do not usually exceed one quarter of an inch!) can possibly be likened to a giant worm-like animal, bearing in mind that such beetles have a readily differentiated head, thorax, and abdomen, as well as a pair of large compound eyes, long antennae, a pair of wings, a pair of wing cases, and three pairs of legs!
True, the larva of carabids (including bombardier beetles), known as a campodeiform larva, is long and somewhat worm-like, lacking wings and compound eyes, but it still possess three pairs of legs, and is even smaller than the adult beetle. And it goes without saying, surely, that if, somehow, there could be an undiscovered species of carabid beetle in the Gobi that produces larvae up to five feet long, the adults into which these horrors later transform would truly be monstrous (not to mention physiologically impossible!) in every sense.
As for an unknown species of ant-lion: these insects are related to the familiar lacewings, and superficially resemble weak-flying dragonflies in the adult form. The larval ant-lion, conversely, digs a conical pit in sand, and lurks unseen at the bottom, waiting for hapless ants or other small insects to fall into the pit and slide down to the bottom—where this predatory juvenile is waiting to seize its victims in a pair of massive jaws. Once again, however, such creatures bear no resemblance to the local descriptions given for the death worm, and certainly could not attain the size claimed for it.
The third equally unlikely identity offered up for serious consideration is that the death worm could be an unknown species of giant mole. This prospect was duly documented and favored by B. Avirmed in his various death worm publications, in which he included the account of the driver B. Boldoos, who encountered an odd burrowing mystery beast with rear limb-like projections in Eezh Chairchan, western Mongolia. However, all of the many “true” (i.e. traditional) death worm reports on file are evidently describing a totally different type of animal—one with a long limbless body, and lacking a visibly differentiated head or tail. Thus it is clear that Boldoos’ beast has nothing to do with the “true” death worm, and need not be considered further in this present account.
So far, the death worm has been shown not to be dramatically different from various other anguinine species inhabiting deserts. As we have seen, even its alleged venom-spraying capacity may have a foundation in fact rather than belonging exclusively to the realms of local folklore. But what about its most amazing purported ability? Is it conceivable that the death worm can actually kill by electrocution? And if not, how can we explain the many reports claiming that it can kill instantly by touch—even by indirect touch, as when prodded with a metal rod—and blaming it for the instantaneous deaths of entire herds of camels?
In order to electrocute anything, the death worm would need to possess specialized electric organs for generating electricity, but the evolution of such organs is not, in itself, particularly implausible. After all, electric organs, developed from modified muscle, are already known to occur in six totally separate taxonomie groups of fish.
These are: the electric catfish, electric rays, electric stargazers, gymnotids (plus their famous cousin, the electric eel), mormyrids (elephant trunk fishes), and rajid skates. Moreover, as these groups are all wholly unrelated to one another, and as in each group the electric organs are derived by a modification of a different type of muscle, the evolution of these organs has clearly occurred six times, completely independently.
This in turn favors the possibility of such organs evolving again, a seventh time—but surely not in a beast so radically different from any fish as the death worm? Yet as my research into the nature and function of electric organs reveals, this cannot be ruled out. Quoting from an earlier death worm article of mine
, fall 1995):
Electric organs are composed of flattened cells called electroplaques, stacked in vertical columns. Each electroplaque normally produces only about 0.1 volt, but they are generally connected to one another in series, whereas the columns are connected to one another in parallel. Freshwater conducts electricity less efficiently than seawater—hence to generate the higher voltages required for overcoming this electrical resistance, freshwater electric fishes usually have fewer but taller columns of electroplaques than marine electric fishes (which tend to generate lower voltages but higher currents). The electrical discharge will occur either via the fish’s own actions or via an external stimulus (such as something touching the fish).
Both the African mormyrids and the South American gymnotids (knifefishes) are freshwater groups, but they do not emit high voltages, because their electric organs create an electrical “force field” merely for navigation and detecting the approach of potential prey.
This is also the function of two of the three electric organs possessed by the gymnotids’ formidable relative, the freshwater electric eel
of Amazonia—attaining a total length of up to 10 ft (most of which is taken up by its electrical apparatus). However, the third, and largest, organ, whose positive pole is located towards the eel’s head (from where the discharge originates), contains approximately 120 electroplaque columns, each consisting of 6,000 to 10,000 electroplaques.
The result of this fearsome battery is a modest current of 1 amp, but with a discharge of up to 550 volts—released into the eel’s watery medium to stun any frogs and fishes (yet powerful enough to kill a horse or human) detected by its “force field”.
If the death worm possesses a similar physiologi cal arrangement, it would be equally devastating, but because sand is even less effective at conduct ing electricity than freshwater, a victim would generally need to make direct physical contact with the creature, or via an efficient conducting substance, like the geologist’s iron rod, to receive an electric shock. Furthermore, the worm would need to generate considerably more current than the electric eel’s 1 amp version in order for such a shock to be lethal to humans.
Can such a scenario also shed light on the nomads’ claims that the death worm is even able to kill without making any physical contact with its victim? Once again, my research suggests that this may indeed be possible:
However, if the death worm (presumably acting as a capacitor, and generating electricity as it moves beneath the sand) should find itself separated by only a very short distance from physical contact with a living creature capable of conducting electricity, it is possible that the worm could transmit a high-voltage electrical discharge directly across the small intervening distance, rather like an animate spark plug—thereby stunning or even killing the creature without actually touching it. This would yield a factual basis for the Mongolians’ belief in such an ability, with more dramatic claims (i.e. that it can kill from a distance of several feet) deriving from fear-engendered exaggeration.
If the death worm can truly generate and discharge electricity in this manner, it is unquestionably unique among terrestrial fauna, but not unthinkably so. My own feeling regarding its alleged electrocution ability is that if it were solely the product of native superstition, then surely at least some of the great many desert-inhabiting vermiform beasts already described by science (and discussed above in this chapter) would have inspired similar fallacies among their human neighbors. Yet none of them appears to have done so.
The evolution of such an extraordinary physiological process by just a single species of earthworm, amphisbaenid, legless lizard, or snake (or whatever else the death worm might be) may well seem unlikely—but it is not unprecedented. More than 2,000 species of catfish are presently known to science. However, there is only one electricity-generating species,
. Moreover, it is sufficiently distinct from all other catfish species to be set apart by ichthyologists in a taxonomie family all to itself.
In 1994, Drs. Theodore Vonstille and W.T Stille from the Envi-Sci Centre of Florida’s Winter Park proffered a very novel extra purpose for the rattlesnakes’ rattle—proposing that it generates electrostatic charge that can be utilized in detecting prey and hiding places. They revealed that a motionless rattle has no charge; but when it is rapidly vibrated, positive charges of 50 to 100 volts are produced, indicating that a vibrating rattle generates electrostatic charge. Leading on from this remarkable finding, is it conceivable, therefore, that the death worm may generate electricity externally, rather than via internal electric organs?
Michel Raynal has suggested that perhaps the death worm gains an electrical charge via the phenomenon of triboelectricity (frictional electricity), i.e. generating electricity by the rubbing of its body against the enveloping sand as it burrows beneath the surface. Although an intriguing theory, even if it is true I very much doubt that any charge so engendered would be potent enough to kill something as large as a human or camel—though it may be noticeable enough to have been incorporated (and exaggerated accordingly) within the nomads’ corpus of traditional legends and lore.
Yet another thought-provoking explanation for the death worm’s supposed ability to kill without making physical contact with its victims is that it can somehow emit inaudible but lethal ultrasonic pulses (i.e. pulses of sound with a frequency exceeding 20,000 Hz). This intriguing notion was briefly considered by Jaroslav Mares in an article from 1996, but he was unable to proffer a satisfactory mechanism via which the worm could achieve such an effect. In any event, death by ultrasonic bombardment would be far less specific in action than electrocution, killing everyone within range, rather than just a single person.