Mongolia, a land of mystery. Where the grave of great warrior king Genghis Khan, who created an empire stretching from the Baltic and Black to the Bering seas, remains undiscovered. Where the national dish has becomeMongolian barbecue, the stir-fry buffet variety invented in the United States.
And where giant, scarlet worms burrow in the barren expanse of one of the world’s largest, coldest deserts, spewing fiery acid and electrocuting unlucky camels from a distance.
Yes, a creature so fearsomely odd that its name — which also happens to be the title of a cheesy Syfy Channel/Lions Gate DVD release set for April 26 — deserves the honor of its own paragraph:
The Mongolian Death Worm.
An interpretation of the Mongolian Death Worm by Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx.
Just as intrepid explorers still search for Genghis Khan’s grave, reality-TV crews still anxiously seek the sausage-like, homicidal pseudo-penis dentata dubbed the olgoi-khorkhoi, or the “intestine worm.” Even the august National Geographic sent its own beast hunter, Pat Spain, in search of the Mongolian Death Worm.
He didn’t find it, but managed to add to MDW’s mythos by noting it can explode when angered, as if zapping helpless goat herders from a distance weren’t enough.
Syfy Channel’s own documentary show, “Destination Truth,” has been there, too, as have others, though according to this Mongolian site that offers death worm tours, the first digital age quest may have been by a 1994 Czech TV team.
Like everybody else, the Czechs came up empty-handed. That’s not a surprise, since the originator of the whole Mongolian Death Worm meme was the storied, tough bwana Roy Chapman Andrews, said to be an inspiration for Indiana Jones.
In his 1926 book “On the Trail of Ancient Man,” Andrews recounted with some skepticism a range of secondhand observations from native Mongolians of the so-called intestine worm — so named for its outward appearance, not its choice of alimentary dwelling.
Unfortunately, history leaves us little more than eyewitness testimony of worm sightings, detailed as they often are.
The MDW is dubious enough that cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, displays a vintage model of Japanese kaiju movie heroMothra in the larval stage, but labels it as the Mongolian Death Worm. Youngsters often ask what the label is doing on Mothra.
Mongo-D “is not a celebrity cryptid like the Loch Ness Monster or Yeti,” Coleman told AOL News. It’s more of a second-tier creature, he said, “not like a unicorn or a centaur, but it’s very much a shadowy folklore creature.”
So why is the worm enjoying a sudden cultural renaissance among couch explorers?
“You could go to Lake Champlain and look for Champ, or you could go look for Bigfoot, but that’s not so exotic,” Coleman said. “These documentary film companies are looking to sell concepts and sell advertising.”
The fact that Genghis Khan Beer is plentiful and costs about $1.15 a large can, or 1,412 Mongoliantogrog, probably doesn’t hurt either. Unlike, say, Burton and Speke’s nearly year-long Victorian-era expedition searching for the Nile’s source, reality docu-junkets last a couple of days — hardly time for serious scientific investigation.
Plus, Coleman said, “People are getting bored, and so they like different kinds of cryptids.”
The single review on Amazon of “Mongolian Death Worm” the movie, by a Tammy N. Zhang, which 0 of 9 people found helpful, appears to support that conclusion:
Its the best creature movie yet and a treasure guarded by killer man-eating worms only a genious could think of a movie like this. Nice level of gore like the one where blood and chunks of meat came flying out of the well, A-W-E-S-O-M-E. Good action like guns and explosions that are big and cool. How can it get better than this, then all of a sudden a giant one came out of a big crack in the wall and ate a couple of people but still awesome. [sic]
Awesome indeed, especially considering the movie stars Sean Patrick Flanery, who once played the young Indiana Jones.
The thing is, a creature such as this could almost exist if it didn’t have quite so many unique characteristics, said May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology — the study of insects — at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
For instance, among bugs, “spitting acid is not a unique and unprecedented accomplishment,” Berenbaum told AOL News. “There are plenty of arthropods that rely on acid.” For instance, she added, there’s the vinegaroon, or whipscorpion, which “sprays from a revolving turret on its abdomen, literally acetic acid,” the key component of vinegar.
Really big worms are not uncommon, either. In Australia, there are earthworms that can reach 5 feet long. But it’s the electrical jolt component, the notion that Mongo-D is some sort of “taser worm” that can kill from a distance, that’s most problematic, according to Berenbaum. Her name might be familiar to “X-Files” fans from the episode “War of the Coprophages,” about possible alien robotic cockroaches, in which the writers paid homage to her as Dr. “Bambi” Berenbaum.
“There are certainly intestinal worms that can establish residence internally and cause major stress, and heavy levels of parasites can bring down an animal, but from the inside, not the outside,” she said.
She stops short of ruling out the existence of the Mongolian Death Worm — it may be a misnamed snake or some other phylum-bender. “Certain aspects of its biology are not at all unfamiliar,” Berenbaum said. “But when you put them all together, I am not sanguine about the process of finding one soon.”