Detour: Mongolian Death Worm - The Gobi Desert's Most Carnivorous Cryptid TAP TO GET PODCAST
If you find yourself out trekking through Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, you might want to pack a few layers of lightweight clothes, an extra canteen of water, and something to shield yourself from the beasts below the shifting sands. Legend has it, this seemingly infinite dry desert is home to a 5-foot long, acid-belching, red sandworm that has provoked fear in the hearts of natives for centuries.
I’m Elaine, and you’re touring Cryptids Across the Atlas.
One exceptionally sweltering July evening, a young boy was out walking the sand dunes just a few miles outside of his home in Mongolia. Begging for a bit of freedom now that he was getting a little older, this young boy desperately wanted to claim some independence. After all, he had just recently hit the double digits and wanted to prove he was capable of traveling on his own. Knowing the dangers of what can happen out in the deserts, his mother and father were weary of his plea. But promising he’d pack enough water for his hour-long excursion and ensuring he’d wear enough layers to block his skin from the scorching rays, his parents begrudgingly agreed.
“Be back in one hour, not a minute longer. The sun will be setting soon, and it’s not safe for you to be out wandering the dunes at night”, demanded his mother. “And don’t wander off too far. You may be getting older, but you’re still a child, my child.”, reminded his father. To the young boy, it felt that even though his plan of getting some freedom prevailed, he knew that if he waited for any second longer before leaving, both of his parents would backtrack their allowance.
After promising over and over again that he’d be fine, he slung his canteen across his chest and was out the door. Even though the hot July sun was already beating down on him and he could barely make out distance through the sun’s rays, he felt all grown up. “I can do this,” he thought to himself. “It’ll only be an hour, and I can come home and prove that I am capable of handling my own. Nothing is going to happen to me. They’ll see.”
So, the boy went on his walk through the Gobi desert, skirting around various snakes and scorpions along the way. Although he could taste this newfound freedom, proving he was capable of surviving an hour alone, the walk through the desert was pretty boring. Sure, he saw a few reptiles, but nothing super fascinating. There was only so much adventure out in the nearly infinite desert.
But soon the sun slowly started to set, and he quickly realized he was late! He knew he’d get in trouble, so he took off running the remaining mile toward his house, hoping to make it back with time to spare. But then he felt something odd below his feet.
As the ground started to shift, he turned to his left, and what he saw completely shocked him! There it was, 5 feet long and covered in what looked like a giant red, fleshy skin-toned intestine.
The monster began leaping out of the shifty ground, only to make it’s way closer and closer. Noticing the protruding spikes at either end, the boy ran even faster, breaking more sweat than he had the entire trudge before. But he was too late. Just as he could see the smoke coming from his family’s home as his mother was preparing his favorite meal for dinner, he tripped over his shawl and fell to his knees. That’s when this “Mongolian Death Worm” spat out its corrosive venom and paralyzed the young boy with an immense shock that would kill him on impact.
Unfortunately, this destructive tale isn’t anything new to the Mongolian nomadic tribes.
Stretched between southern Mongolia and northwestern China lies The Gobi Desert, measuring 500,000 square miles. This stretch of desert is supposedly home to a monster commonly referred to as the “Mongolian Death Worm.” But locals call it by a different name. The Olgoi-Khorkhoi translates to an “intestine worm” because of its size, shape, and darkly red coloring. But its size isn’t even the most menacing feature of all. Sure, a massive worm ranging from 5-7 feet long is terrifying. But when you add in sharp spikes jutting out both ends and a paralyzing yellow venom that sends an electrifying shock, now that’s what nightmares are made of.
For centuries Mongolian nomads have passed down stories of livestock, members of other tribes, and even members of their own communities coming up missing in the desert, only to find them lying paralyzed and mutilated days later. So when Ivan Mackerle, Czechoslovakian cryptozoologist, author, and explorer, caught wind of this exotic treacherous worm, he knew he wanted to find evidence for himself.
On three separate occasions, Ivan conducted his search for the Mongolian Death Worm, once in 1990, again in 1992, and one final time in 2004. Each time, Ivan heard of second-hand accounts of the destruction of this treacherous worm. But much to his dismay, all three expeditions came up short. No matter how much he researched, no matter who he interviewed, or how long he stayed, he never found the physical evidence he had hoped for. Although Ivan was a well-seasoned cryptid researcher, often on the hunt for the most infamous cryptids such as the Mongolian Death Worm or even the Loch Ness Monster, Ivan felt that this creature was more likely a figment of imagination or a “psychological problem” due to the penetrating heat and extreme mirages caused from the sweltering temperatures and flowing rhythm of the sand dunes.
Though imaginative or not, the Mongolian Death Worm has definitely inspired popular culture, especially in Hollywood. Take the 1965 Dune series, for instance. Author Frank Herbert wrote about massive sandworms on planet Arrakis. In his novels, These beings were “worshipped as agents of God by the Fremen, who considered their actions a form of divine intervention”.
In Tim Burton’s 1988 cult classic Beetlejuice, sandworms are often seen throughout the movie. According to the main character, Betelgeuse, played by Michael Keaton, “these large sandworm predators live a desert region of the neither-world called Saturn and actively hunted ghosts who haven’t yet crossed over.”
Or how about the 1990 classic, Tremors, featuring Kevin Bacon? In this story, natives from a small town are being terrorized by unknown, underground creatures and killing off members of their community, one by one. Or what about the right-on-the-nose 2010 SyFy flick titled Mongolian Death Worm? In this tale, an American oil company sets up a drilling plant out in the vast deserts of Mongolia, where they awaken a nest of Mongolian Death Worms, who devour everyone and everything that stumbles upon their territory.
It seems like Hollywood’s adaptation of these squirmy red beasts all has similar attributes: they live underground, they burrow in and out of the desert, and they all have a carnivorous appetite for humans, or at least in Beetlejuice’s case, what use to be a human. I digress.
While we haven’t yet had any scientific proof that these sandworms really do exist, it’s not for a lack of trying. Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer and Director of the American Museum of Natural History, had a knack for adventure. Always seeking out nature’s greatest assets, Roy often led expeditions throughout different parts of the world in the 1920s and 30s, including the Gobi desert.
In fact, in 1923, as he led expeditions to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, Roy discovered the first-known fossilized dinosaur eggs when overturning what seemed to be three large rocks. Amazed at this discovery, he knew he had found something epic. But while Roy was an avid follower of science and found extraordinary evidence of species long before us, he was also a natural-born skeptic, discrediting any accounts of cryptids, especially the Mongolian Death Worm.
But when the Mongolian Premier, Mongolia’s Head of Government, learned of Roy’s scientific findings, he personally reached out to Roy and his team to go out and try to find remains of the Mongolian Death Worm. Of course, due to his adventurous spirit and willingness to prove the strange accounts of death-by-electric-shock land worms wrong, Roy couldn’t say no. While out in the Gobi desert, Roy and his team frequently met with various members of local nomadic tribes, hearing their accounts of losing livestock, such as their carrying camels, being devoured by the underground beast they call the Olgoi-Khorkhoi.
Though Roy just wasn’t buying any of it. He believed in science and believed there was a scientific explanation for these missing animals. While he did promise the Mongolian government that if he came across the ravenous beast, dead or alive, he’d try to obtain a specimen for them to study, unsurprisingly, Roy’s findings during this expedition came up short. After months and months of searching, he was never able to find evidence of venom-spitting electric worms.
But for the Mongolian nomadic tribes, no matter the lack of evidence, they still believe something terrifying lives amongst them, hiding underground. Losing their loved ones, as well as losing their livestock, is an all too devastating reality. The common rattlesnake or scorpion simply couldn’t ground shakingly leap out of the air, spit out paralyzing venom, and completely wipe out large camels or the missing men who have called these deserts their home for centuries. It may not have meant much to Roy Andrews to try to find this crimson death worm because there was no skin in the game for him. But the Mongolian tribes had suffered enough loss already.
If you were able to ask the young boy’s family that went missing in the Gobi desert what took ether son, they would probably tell you the Mongolian Death Worm got him. By the look of the boy’s remains, nearly a mile out from the safety of their own home, it was evident that this beast had arisen from underground to bring terror upon them once again. And despite their better judgment, they still let their young son go off alone, knowing the potential yet fateful outcome.
But unfortunately, we may never know what took the young boy’s life. Because as a last-ditch effort to seek revenge against whatever took their only son, his parents and members of their local tribe went out to hunt the Mongolian Death Worm and end its reign of terror. Only, they too, seemingly disappeared without a trace.
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.