IT IS the stuff of legend. The Mongolian death worm lives beneath the shifting sands of the Gobi desert, rarely surfacing, and then only to squirt a deadly blast of venom at predators. Some even believe it has the power to electrocute its victims.
For Ivan Mackerle, a scientist and explorer, the search to prove its existence has become a passion. Inspired by nomads’ sightings of the 5ft-long blood-red worm, he is preparing to embark on his third expedition in pursuit of the subterranean creature.
His previous attempts provided no substantive evidence, despite efforts to drive the worm to the surface by detonating explosives in the sand. “It appears to be both deadly and deaf,” said Mackerle.
His planned return to Mongolia is one of an unprecedented number of expeditions being mounted over the next two years by teams from some of the world’s top academic institutions to find creatures which locals say exist but have, as yet, eluded modern science.
The biggest search centres on the dense tropical jungle of the Mato Grosso in the South American Amazon basin, where tribesmen speak of a large animal that walks on its hind legs and eats small trees. Dubbed the Amazonian ” bigfoot “, scientists believe it is a giant sloth, which they thought had died out 8,500 years ago.
The leader of the expedition is Dr David Oren, a biologist, whose best clues to its existence are 22lb of faeces and some clumps of hair. Over the past nine years rubber tappers and Indians have told him of a creature they call Mapinguari, with dark red fur, a thunderous roaring voice and a disabling stench. Last week he was unavailable for comment as he searched the jungle again.
Colleagues searching Tasmania for another animal thought to have died out much more recently have been no more successful. Ever since the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Wolf, was declared extinct in the 1930s after over-hunting, there have been persistent reports of sightings.
Teams of scientists have scoured remote parts of the island for what has been called the world’s commonest extinct animal, but to no avail. Their branch of science is known as cryptozoology.
Professor Roy Mackal, a molecular biochemist and zoologist, said: “Expeditions in the past few years have led to a spate of new and hitherto unsuspected species being discovered. Now everyone is looking at these so-called myths and legends and wondering if they are true.”
Mackal has led two expeditions to the Congo in search of the Mokele-mbembe, an aquatic beast said to resemble a small dinosaur. Similar fruitless searches have been made for a 60ft sea serpent known as the Cadborosaurus that is frequently reported off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. It is said to bear remarkable similarities to the Loch Ness monster.
In recent years scientists have discovered a huge kangaroo which lives in trees in Irian Jaya, the western part of New Guinea controlled by Indonesia, and a new species of ox, now named the Vu Quang, which was discovered on the borders of North Vietnam and Laos. The creature has features common to both cattle and antelope and could be a missing link between them. Within the past few months scientists working in the same area have discovered an unknown species of wild pig.
In South America zoologists have discovered a species of peccary (similar to a pig) which was thought to have become extinct millions of years ago. Others, using special nets to trawl the deepest reaches of the Amazon, have found ancient freshwater fish species.
Dr John Lundberg of Arizona University, who led the expedition, said the oddest of the 240 new species he has found was Magosternachus duccis , which stuns its prey with electricity and then eats their tails. The tails later regenerate, ensuring a constant supply of food.
The scientists who make such discoveries are guaranteed to go down in history. The greatest prize of all in cryptozoology, however, lies on land – the discovery of a new species of great ape or, best of all, a second species of hominid. Homo sapiens (us) is the only species known still to survive, although many others have become extinct.
The evidence for the existence of such species is, to cryptozoologists at least, very strong. In the Himalayas there are persistent stories of yetis, thought by some to be a type of orang-utan that has become adapted for life on the ground in the dense rhododendron forests. In North America there are constant sightings of the Sasquatch , or bigfoot , a larger creature whose appearance is similar to that of Gigantopithecus, a large prehistoric ape whose fossil remains are well-documented.
Dr Karl Shuker, a leading cryptozoologist, retains an open mind but says the chances of such a creature being found are high. “Since 1990 seven totally new species of monkey have been found in South America alone. If such primates could remain hidden from scientists for so long then it is highly likely that creatures closer to man and therefore more intelligent may yet be undiscovered.”
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1997
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1997 Sunday Times