Sandworms are the beginning of all evil, at least in the sci-fi saga “Dune”. American author Frank Herbert achieved stature with his series of novels from 1965 onwards, books were shot in 1984 and a new version was successfully released in cinemas. In the “Dunes”, feral worms live in subterranean tunnel systems, sucking all liquid from the planet Arrakis for their own survival. Thus the literal devastation of the planet cannot be stopped. Moreover, creatures eat everything that comes in their way – people or machines, as long as they have fuel. Tempted by the rhythmic vibrations caused by people with their steps, the animals shoot out of the dunes and suck up everything.
Now, sci-fi monsters are often more fantasy than science, but there may be animals living in the dunes of the Mongolian Gobi that look remarkably like sandworms from the desert planet, at least according to a small, tight-knit community of researchers. The leader in the world, because almost the only expert in the field of worms was the Czech Ivan Makirl (1942-2013), who invested all his money in finding a specific species: “Algoi Jorkhoi”.
Like its relatives on the desert planet Earth, the Mongolian worm kills humans
Less bravely, the term is translated by Algoy Jorkhoi, mackerel as “intestinal worm”, and is said to be up to one meter long and an arm thick. Most reports agree that this worm is red in color, sometimes with dark spots. However, Bedouins have also reported scaly skin and spiky teeth on both ends of the animal – the head and rump are indistinguishable from one another. He is said to live in the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, or rather beneath them, because he is said to spend most of his time in underground passages. It only comes out to the surface when it rains and the earth is soaked. A monstrous earthworm then? Not quite, because the animal has a hunting season in June and July. Like its relatives on the desert planet, the Algoi Jorkhoi is a carnivore and also preys on humans. Therefore it is also known as the Mongolian death worm.
According to Mackerle’s descriptions, the animal is particularly dangerous because it has two killing mechanisms at its disposal: poison and electric shock – although rumored eyewitness reports don’t fully agree on whether it can spray venom or secrete it through the skin and thus the slightest touch leads to death. It is said that the worm is so dangerous that encountering it usually ends fatal, which is why there are almost no eyewitnesses. How, then, might word of his presence be spread?
The animal was first mentioned in research reports by paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews. In the 1920s, he led pioneering expeditions to Central Asia, where he took the cradle of humanity. That’s why he searched for the oldest traces of human life there. He did not find this, but became the prototype of a brave adventurer, who was to find his ideal popular cultural type in the character of Indiana Jones. He was the first to come across fossil dinosaur eggs and the remains of a giant, hornless rhinoceros.
Is it really a stranded electric snake or maybe a venomous snake?
As a result of his travels, more than 50 articles with search results have been published. Andrews enriches his reports with cultural, historical and often entertaining notes. One of those additions: the repeated descriptions of the linguist Jorge, immortalized in “On the Trail of the Ancient Man” (1926) and “The New Conquest of Central Asia” (1932). During a visit to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, Prime Minister Damdenpazar asked him to catch a specimen of this rare animal and bring it to him. Both the prime minister and his followers were aware of people who had survived encounters with the death worm and could describe them in all their harrowing detail – a shaky source, but enough to give the animal a place in the research report.
Classifying a death worm is tricky: is it a proximal worm, an electric stranded eel, or perhaps a venomous snake? It is likely that the latter would have better chances of surviving in the desert. Put the sources together, things don’t look good for Allghoi Khorkhoi: no one has ever seen her with his own eyes. There are neither photos nor reliable documentation about its existence, let alone a sample. Andrews was also unsuccessful, though he promised the prime minister he would pick up one if he saw one. Why do scientists voluntarily search for an animal that has never seen it because it is so poisonous that it will kill anyone who touches it? Andrews, at least, had his nationwide promise open to all. That may explain his enthusiasm in the short term.
So wishful thinking, hearsay and a healthy dose of opportunism kept the worm alive for so long. Makirl collected Mongolian sources and Russian science fiction in the 1990s and traveled in the Gobi several times. Inspired by the “Dune”, he even developed the so-called “Thumper”, a machine with which he wanted to generate rhythmic beats and lure worms out of the sand – unfortunately in vain. Since then, his indefatigable reporting has always occupied a place in treatises of cryptozoology. Where does science end and imagination begin? Perhaps Mackerle walked exactly this fine line, after all, the worm lives in the hearts of cryptozoologists to this day.