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A Poisonous Worm

One of the best-selling science-fiction novels of all time comes to life in this epic, effects-filled mini-series. William Hurt stars as Duke Leto Atreides, whose family is sent into imperial "exile" on the harsh, waterless world known as Dune, and Alec Newman is his son Paul, who survives an attack by a scheming rival clan and fulfills an ancient prophecy that will shake the galaxy.

The twin fields of cryptozoology and cryptobotany are bursting with tales of strange and unusual plants and animals. While the public at large is generally aware of such cryptid superstars as the Loch Ness Monster and the Sasquatch, few have ever heard of the Man-Eating Trees of Madagascar, or the Mongolian Death worms.

In 1881 a magazine called the South Australian Register ran a story by a traveler called Carle Liche. He tells us that while travelling through Madagascar, he was horrified to watch the native Mdoko tribe sacrifice a woman to a man-eating tree. He stated that the places the woman near the tree, and after laying there for a few seconds, the tree's tendrils took the woman by the neck and strangled her, before apparently engulfing the body. In his 1924 book Madagascar, land of the man-eating tree former Michigan Governor Chase Osborn recounted Liche's tale, and mentioned that missionaries and locals in Madagascar all knew of the deadly tree. Unfortunately, Liche's accounts may have been an exaggeration, as both the Mdoko tribe nor the man-eating tree have ever been found, and the governor may simply have been embellishing a little bit more to make for good reading.

Never fear. Despite decades of speculation no one has ever again laid eyes on this carnivorous horror, nor on the Mkodo tribe for that matter, and today most consider the story a fabrication, if a gruesomely good one.

Not so the many sacrifices to the tangena, a shrub common in eastern Madagascar. The plant bears fruit containing an almond-shaped nut of extreme toxicity. In former times, Malagasy authorities forced people suspected of crimes to ingest chunks of the nut, along with three pieces of chicken skin. Intense vomiting ensued, and if the suspect brought up all three pieces of skin, he or she was declared innocent. Tragically, one out of ten people perished from this trial by ordeal before the government outlawed it in 1862.

You're not likely to accidentally swallow the tangena nut, but the same cannot be said for the tsingala, a poisonous black water beetle that typically kills cattle that swallow it within 24 hours. A 19th-century missionary who was traveling through the forest in a palanquin, a litter-on-poles that was the chief conveyance for foreigners in those days, described a tsingala attack on one of his carriers, who minutes before had slaked his thirst from a dirty pool: He stood stretching out both his arms and throwing back his head in a most frantic manner, at the same time shrieking most hideously. My first thoughts were speedily seconded by the words of his companions, who said: "He has swallowed a tsingala." Of course, I immediately got out of my palanquin and went back to the poor fellow. He was now lying on the ground and writhing in agony. His abdomen had become very swollen, and his skin very hot, and I felt that unless something could be done, and that speedily, the man must die.

Spitting cobras

The image of a cobra spitting toxic venom across great distances is rather arresting, and unfortunately untrue. The cobra actually sprays its venom, using muscular contractions and the process of respiration. While this might be viewed as semantic hairsplitting, spitting is actually an entirely separate biological action, involving the muscles of the mouth in a series of motions which propel substances from the interior of the mouth. The idea that cobras spit venom is widespread around the world, much to the frustration of herpetologists.

All of the snakes thought of as spitting cobras are in the genus Naja. These cobras spit venom, or at least appear to, when they are threatened or trying to disable an attacker. As with the venom of other poisonous snakes, the substance is irritating to mucus membranes and can poison someone if it penetrates the skin. When cobras spit venom at bare skin, the victim will not suffer as long as there are no open wounds on the skin for the venom to penetrate.

The process through which it appears that cobras spit venom starts with muscular contractions above the fangs, which force the venom into a hollow area in the fangs. The same muscles are used in non-spitting cobras to pump venom into their prey after they have bitten down. As the venom starts to exit the fangs, it forms a small droplet. When the droplet forms, the cobra exhales, creating a sudden gust of air which propels the venom outwards, sometimes at a distance as much as three feet. Given all appearances, people can be forgiven for thinking that cobras spit venom, but the venom never actually enters the mouth of the cobra before it is propelled outwards.

The man survived after a villager gave him an antidote made from leaves of certain plants steeped in water, but the missionary reported that it was several weeks before the man was strong enough to carry the palanquin again.

From the steppes of Mongolia comes another type of creature that is particularly memorable by its rather disgusting appearance. The Mongolian Death Worm is a supposedly poisonous worm that has the appearance of a bright red bloody cow intestine. That's right, a deadly cow intestine. Said to be about four feet long, the animal is said to spit a yellow substance when threatened that is deadly on contact with human skin, and is even claimed to be able to kill with electricity in a manner similar to the electric eel. Shocking, but does it really exist? Expeditions to Mongolia to find the creature haven't been particularly fruitful, however the story is so wide-spread that there may well be truth to it. With new species of animal, even large ones, seemingly being found all the time in such places as the jungles of Vietnam, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suspect that the same may be found under the earth in the extremely desolate Gobi desert.

Madagascar and Mongolia aren't the only places where one finds man-eating trees and deadly worms. South America is also a fruitful land for stories of deadly trees, and even more amazing are the stories of the enormous Minhocao. This giant cryptic has been reported to live in the forests of South America and has been claimed to reach astonishing lengths of up to 75 feet. Old accounts tell of a huge tunnel digging worm with two appendages on its head, perhaps similar to those of a snail or slug. Unfortunately, no one has seen the Minhocao in over a century, suggesting that it has either gone extinct or may never have existed at all.

Often cryptids are misidentified known animals, sometimes they defy explanation. In any of the cases detailed in this article, there would be few animals with appearances close enough to be mistaken. It might be that the man-eating trees simply stem from exaggerated accounts of venus fly traps, but the worms are more difficult to dismiss. Slimy worms aren't particularly scary, nor do they make good fodder to make up legends about. They are simply worms, and stories of 75 foot long docile giants and blood red disgusting-but-deadly creatures are not something that cultures would normally invent out of thin air. They probably have a grain of truth somewhere, hidden along with the animals themselves in the least explored places on planet earth.

The electric eel

The electric eel is not a true eel. They are members of a group of electrical fish that includes the knife fish and the ghost fish. Their closest relatives outside of this group of electric fish are the catfish. An electric eel is mostly tail. The internal organs are compressed into the anterior 1/8th of the body, and the rest of the fish consists of the long, electricity-producing tail. Extending down the entire tail region is an elongated anal fin. There is no dorsal fin.

Electric eels are not aggressive; They may produce a damaging shock when surprised or stepped on, but the primary use of its electrical talent is to repel potential predators or to immobilize their own prey. Although electric eels can grow to be large fish, their prey is usually a small creature that can be managed without teeth. The most common food item for electric eels is other fish.

The electric eel is different from other electric fish in its ability to generate a stunning or even a killing electrical discharge. The electric eel can produce up to 600V in a single dischange - this is 5 times the shock you would get from sticking your finger into an electrical socket. David Attenborough, in his TV series Life On Earth, demonstrated how the electrical current produced by an electric eel could be used to turn one of more light bulbs! The electric organ, which consists of a series of modified tail muscles, is similar to a row of batteries connected in a series. It is subdivided into three sections: two small and one large. One small battery is used for navigational signals. The large battery and the other small one is used to generate the stunning discharge. After delivering a strong shock, the electric eel must then allow the electric organ to recharge. Batteries have to be recharged using an external source of energy; in the electric eel the energy to recharge the electric organ comes from the fish's metabolism.

A touch from the electric eel's tail can effectively disable a human or a large animal with a stunning shock, although a single discharge is usually not enough to kill. However repeated shocks could kill, and falling over in the water after a disabling discharge could result in drowning. An electric eel would not make a good pet!

A mysterious, deadly creature called Olgoi-Khorkhoi, also known as the Mongolian death worm, reportedly lives in the Gobi Desert. Sounding like a mini-version of the giant worms from Dune, the Olgoi-Khorkhoi appears to be wormlike, about two feet long, headless, thick, and dark red. The name Olgoi-Khorkhoi means "intestine worm." The death worm is feared among the people of Mongolia, as it supposedly has the terrifying ability to kill people and animals instantly at a range of several feet. It is believed that the worm sprays an immensely lethal poison, or that it somehow transmits high-voltage electrical charges into its victims.

The foremost investigator of the Mongolian death worm, Czech author Ivan Mackerle, learned about the creature from a student from Mongolia. After Mackerle told her about a diving expedition he had made in search of the Loch Ness Monster, she told him in a conspiratorial whisper, "We, too, have a horrible creature living in Mongolia. We call it the Olgoi-Khorkhoi monster, and it lives buried in the Gobi Desert sand dunes. It can kill a man, a horse, even a camel."

Intrigued, Mackerle set out to learn more about this Mongolian monster, but information on the topic was hard to come by. As he would soon learn, most Mongolians were afraid to discuss the death worm. In addition, the government of Mongolia outlawed the search for OlgoiKhorkhoi, which the authorities deemed a "fairy tale." After Communism collapsed in Mongolia in 1990, the new political climate provided Mackerle the freedom to mount an expedition to the country's desert wastes to hunt for the worm. He gathered many stories which convinced him that the creature might be real.

Extending a hypothesis proposed by Czech cryptozoologist Jaroslav Mares in 1993, French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal has suggested in recent years that the Olgoi-Khorkhoi might be a highly specialized reptile, belonging to the suborder of the amphisbaenians: specialized burrowing reptiles that generally have no limbs and are reddish-brown in color. It is difficult to distinguish the head from the tail in many amphisbaenians, some of which can reach two and one-half feet in length.

Another possibility is that the death worm is a member of the cobra family called the death adder. This species has an appearance similar to the descriptions of the Olgoi-Khorkhoi, and it does spray its venom. Though death adders could conceivably survive in the Gobi environment, they have been found only in Australia and New Guinea.

Then there is the matter of the death worm's reputed ability to kill its victims from a far distance, without even shooting venom. Some have proposed that this might be performed with an electrical shock of some sort. This hypothesis might have arisen from an association with the electric eel, but the eel and all similar electricity-discharging animals are fish, and none of them could stay alive on land, much less in a desert. Most likely, the "death from a distance" component of the Olgoi-Khorkhoi legend is an exaggeration based on fear.

J.M.Sinclair. Man-eating Trees and Mongolian Death Worms. The Paranormal Report. October 08, 2007. Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark. Cryptozoology A To Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature . A Fireside Book. 1999.

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