History is littered with strange creatures which exist just outside human understanding, remaining undiscovered by science. Most inhabit extremely isolated areas, are scarce or reclusive, and are almost always threatening.
All of these things are true of one of the strangest creatures which potentially hides out there. In the vast uninhabited wilderness of the Gobi desert, stories have emerged over the years of something straight out of a nightmare. Dangerous, aggressive, and easily capable of killing a grown man with its venom, this is the Mongolian Death Worm.
Unknown to Science?
Whatever other doubts may exist about this strange creature, the locals are adamant that it is real. Calling it “olgoi-khorkhoi” which in Mongolian means “large intestine worm”, Its ominous name hints at its dangerous nature.
First described to the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922 by the Prime Minister of Mongolia, the creature is said to be about two feet (0.6 meters) long and so venomous that it can kill instantly at the slightest touch. It is found only in the remotest regions of the Gobi.
Andrews himself never saw the Mongolian Death Worm, but the Mongolian officials all corroborated the story. Interestingly, these Mongolian officials who shared the legend with the author had also not seen the worm. However, they were able to provide a very detailed description of the worm-like animal.
Other details emerged over time. The Death Worm is truncated and fat, dark red in color and possesses a spine-like projection on both ends of the body. It remains hidden in the sands, where it will strike in ambush if disturbed.
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According to locals, the Mongolian Death Worm is very dangerous and can kill in many ways. The locals fear the worm and take care to avoid anywhere they fear it may be hiding. According to some accounts, the worm can even spit a stream of deadly poison toward the victim, which paralyzes the victim and inevitably leads to death.
By now it is becoming clear that it is difficult to separate facts from the growing fantasy, and other stories seem downright implausible. For instance, there are tales of the Mongolian Death Worm electrocuting a victim from a distance and causing their death. Such an ability would make the Death Worm unique among terrestrial animals.
What Evidence is There?
Although Mongolian legends warn people not to seek out the worm, there have been zoological expeditions to discover the worm in an attempt to understand and classify it. There have been many joint efforts to find the worm and observe it in its habitat.
However, well-funded expeditions and individual researchers alike have not satisfactorily identified and classified this unknown creature, and many are quick to dismiss it as another fictitious cryptid, or a misidentified known species, or both. Traps have been set, local guides recruited and expeditions have exhaustively combed the area it is said to inhabit, but all the efforts have never uncovered a single specimen.
The people who believe in the existence of the worm also confirm that there has been no hard evidence about the existence of the worm. The worm does however share a resemblance with some snakes, particularly the Tartar Sand Boa. When an example of this species was shown to a local, they confirmed it was indeed “olgoi-khorkhoi”.
Problem solved? Well, not really. The Tartar Sand Boa is robust enough to be the “fat” Mongolian Death Worm, and is about the right size. But it is not red and has no spiny protrusions. Most damningly, it is not venomous, and so the stories of envenoming and instant death cannot have come from this little snake.
There are definitely venomous snakes in the Gobi desert, and it may be that the stories of the Mongolian Death Worm are conflated accounts of several different species, all lumped together as a single cryptid. This would account for the failure to find a specimen, but it would also require that the locals, with their detailed knowledge of their surroundings and the dangerous animals they must contend with, are completely mistaken.
Folkloric Origins of the Mongolian Death Worm
There is another explanation however: the Mongolian Death Worm may be a folkloric beast, a sort of manifestation of the dangers of the Gobi desert. If we take the Mongolian Death Worm as an animal that only exists in Mongolian folklore, the popularity of the stories linked with the deadly worm is only a sign of the widespread acceptance of the worm as a symbolic animal, much like the Chinese dragon.
The stories of the Mongolian Death Worm have spread through travel and trade and such interactions have taken the stories out of Mongolia and made them part of the legendary folklore of the region. Knowledge of the creature is certainly more widespread than those who have directly encountered it, and it could be that a fantasy beast has been mistaken for a real creature by those who have heard of it.
In the end, the creature is probably not real as there has been no tangible evidence of a Mongolian Death Worm, whether alive or dead. At least a skeleton or dead body resembling the death worm would have given a scaffold of reality to the descriptions and stories.
Moreover, from a zoological and climate perspective, it is unlikely that any such animal as the Mongolian Death Worm exists in the Gobi desert. The desert conditions are not conducive for a fat, fleshy red worm. And if it was there, some evidence of its existence would surely have been found.
Mostly, the Mongolian death worm could have been a snake or a legless lizard adapted to the desert conditions. It seems likely that no such worm exists, and the zoological experts are looking for the wrong animal.
Top Image: The Mongolian Death Worm is feared by locals in the Gobi Desert. Source: ヴィダル / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri