Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Saturday 30 November 2013


A giant pink slug endemic to Mount Kaputar (© NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service)

Sometimes, the most surprising discoveries can be right before our eyes, without even being recognised. Take the remarkable case of the giant pink slugs of remote Mount Kaputar in New South Wales, Australia.

Measuring a very sizeable 8 in long, and boasting an extremely bright, fluorescent pink body colouration that looks more akin to a particularly lurid Photoshop creation than anything designed by Mother Nature, these exceptionally eyecatching, moss-munching molluscs are found nowhere else on Earth.

They have long been known to scientists, but until very recently were simply assumed to be a non-taxonomic variety of the red triangle slug Triboniophorus graeffei. Named after a distinctive triangular marking present upon its mantle, this is a smaller, less vividly-hued but very common species along Australia's east coast that exists in a range of different colours.

Two green specimens of the red triangle slug (public domain)

Following a new study of their morphology and genetic make-up, however, Mount Kaputar's giant pink slugs have been exposed as a distinct, valid species in their own right. This now awaits formal description and naming, although it is already known colloquially as the blood slug on account of its startling colouration.

What makes its belated taxonomic recognition particularly interesting and zoologically significant is that this is now the only species belonging to the family Athoracophoridae that is known from inland Australia – all other species within the afore-mentioned family of land slugs (known as leaf-veined slugs) are of coastal occurrence.

Its separate species status means that this shocking-pink mega-mollusc also becomes Australia's largest native species of land slug. But why is it pink? As it lives in areas of the forest floor richly carpeted with red eucalyptus leaves, its neon-pink hue may actually afford it camouflage.

Giant pink slug – close-up of its head (pic source: http://www.factzoo.com/invertebrates/giant-pink-slug-slimy-fashion.html)

Friday 29 November 2013


The orang pendek of Sumatra in Indonesia's Greater Sundas island group has attracted considerable cryptozoological attention, but could there also be diminutive yet previously less-publicised man-beasts existing still-undiscovered by science on Indonesia's much smaller Lesser Sundas island of Flores?

Does an ornate 16th-century painting from India's Mughal Empire hold the key to the former existence in Asia of a mystery cat analogous to Africa's king cheetah?

How can the vast diversity of reports appertaining to mysterious freshwater cryptids across the length and breadth of Spain be explained?

What is the taxonomic identity of the koolookamba, a longstanding African mystery ape known not only from reports but also from captive specimens - just an aberrant version of chimpanzee, or a taxonomically discrete form in its own right, or even a bona fide chimpanzee-gorilla hybrid?

These are the fascinating subjects and thought-provoking questions under consideration in the papers contained within Volume 2 of the Journal of Cryptozoology - the world's only peer-reviewed scientific periodical devoted to mystery animals - which is now available to pre-order here. Don't miss it!

Engravings from 1896 of Mafuca, the most famous koolookamba to have been exhibited in captivity

Sunday 24 November 2013


I'm delighted to announce that my latest book, Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (Coachwhip Publications: Greenville, 2013), is now available in hardback on both the USA Amazon site (click here) and the UK Amazon site (click here). 

And here is what you'll find in it:

Enough to keep even the most devoted draconophile spellbound for hours!

Friday 22 November 2013


Little Snowflake as an adult

He was claimed to be the most photographed animal of all time (even appearing on the front cover of dance music duo Basement Jaxx's album Rooty), and he was indisputably one of the animal kingdom's greatest, most readily recognisable icons. He died 10 years ago this week, so here (first published in Fortean Times shortly after he died, but now expanded and updated in ShukerNature) is my tribute to Little Snowflake - the world's only known white gorilla.

As any cryptozoologist will confirm, Africa has always been replete with legends of bizarre-sounding beasts - some of which, notwithstanding, have ultimately proven to be real animals hitherto undescribed by science, as with the okapi, giant forest hog, and pygmy hippopotamus. Far more unlikely even than these, however, must surely be various ancient native legends of huge ghostly gorillas with pure-white fur worshipped as jungle deities. After all, none of these pallid entities had ever been spied by western explorers, so science scoffed at the mere notion of a white gorilla. Conversely, fiction writers and film makers alike were captivated by this semi-supernatural image, which duly featured in various adventure novels and movies.

A Virgil Finlay illustration from 1949 for The White Gorilla by Elmer B Mason

An early example, published in 1915, was written by Elmer B. Mason and succinctly entitled The White Gorilla.

A USA movie of the same title directed by Harry L. Fraser was released in 1945, and starred stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan as an embittered African explorer determined to track down and kill the elusive but ferocious white ape that had previously savaged him.

'The White Gorilla', starring Ray "Crash" Corrigan

Returning to novels: another one, originally published in French in 1957, was entitled Le Gorille Blanc and was penned by famous French science-fiction author Henri Vernes.

In 1966, it was republished in English as The White Gorilla, but by an incredible coincidence this very same year ended with an astonishing, totally unexpected discovery that effortlessly transcended and supplanted romantic fiction with truly remarkable fact.

Le Gorille Blanc by Henri Vernes

On 1 October 1966, amid the dense jungle of the tiny West African country of Rio Muni (a former Spanish colony now part of Equatorial Guinea), an adult female lowland gorilla was shot while devouring bananas within the grove of local farmer Benito Mañé. When warily inspected afterwards, the gorilla was found to be dead, but clinging to her body, its head buried within her deep fur, was a tiny baby gorilla that was still alive. Moreover, as Mañé and the other villagers crowding near to view the corpse and its attached baby could clearly see, this was no ordinary gorilla infant. Mañé's description of it was as accurate as it was concise: 'Nfumu! Ngi! - 'White! Gorilla!'.

And indeed it was, covered entirely in snowy-white fur. It was not a full, complete albino, however, because its eyes were not pink but bright blue - thus corresponding with the condition exhibited by the white tigers of Rewa and the Timbavati white lions. News of this amazing discovery soon reached Dr Paul Zahl of the National Geographic Society's Natural Sciences Division, by way of Spanish naturalist Dr Jorge Sabater Pi, who had meanwhile purchased the little gorilla - a two-year-old male - from Mañé for £50. Sabater subsequently spent some time taming the young ape during its sojourn at the Centro de Adaptacion y Experimentacion de Ikunde, sited in Rio Muni but owned by Barcelona Zoo.

Little Snowflake debuting in National Geographic Magazine, March 1967

Officially christened Nfumu, this white wonder was soon nicknamed Copito de Nieve - Spanish for 'Little Snowflake' - by Barcelona Zoo's director, Dr Antonio Jonch Cuspinera upon its arrival at Barcelona Zoo. And even though this name inevitably became somewhat incongruous when applied to what eventually became a fully-grown gorilla weighing around 400 lb, standing almost 6 ft tall, and sporting an 8-ft armspan, this is how the people of Barcelona - and far beyond - have popularly referred to their zoo's most famous inhabitant ever since. Little Snowflake he began, and Little Snowflake he remained.

Little Snowflake, full-grown (Ettore Balocchi/Flickr/Wikipedia)

Although records exist of gorillas with patches of white pigmentation that eventually disappeared, no other confirmed record of a pure-white gorilla is known, The closest item that I have been able to uncover is a snippet from Lawrence G. Green's Great African Mysteries (1937), in which he states:

"In the Upper Tano district of the Gold Coast Colony [now Ghana] a persistent native rumour of a 'wild man of the trees' was investigated some years ago. The natives dreaded the raids of this creature - described as a white giant. He killed children and sometimes carried off a woman over his shoulder. A white hunter set out to solve the mystery, and nearly lost his life in the attempt. He came face to face with the gorilla - a white-haired specimen - and failed to kill with the first shot. Then the gorilla was on him with a roar, breaking both his arms. Weakened by the wound, the gorilla crept away soon afterwards and the hunter survived."

This account seems highly sensationalised, and even if genuine it may simply be that the gorilla was an old individual whose dark hair had become silvered all over, an extreme example of the typical male silverback condition.

Painting of a belligerent white gorilla in the wild (image source unknown to me)

As for Little Snowflake, his origin was a complete mystery. Although legends of white gorillas have emerged elsewhere in Africa, ironically there are no such myths prevalent in or around Equatorial Guinea, for the local villagers were just as astounded by his discovery as the scientists. Moreover, with no indication of any previous white gorillas in the area from which he could have inherited the two copies of the recessive mutant allele (gene form) needed to produce his pallid colouring, for many years scientists assumed that it may well have arisen via a spontaneous mutation, thus originating with Little Snowflake and lacking any genetic precursor (but see Postscript at the end of this ShukerNature post for new findings relating to the genetics responsible).

Consequently, zoologists at Barcelona Zoo hoped that by breeding Little Snowflake with normal gorillas at the zoo, the exceedingly rare recessive gene responsible for his unique appearance may be perpetuated, and that in the future other white gorillas may be born. As yet, however, this has not happened, but he was nothing if not obliging, having mated with three different female gorillas and sired no less than 22 offspring, all normal-coloured. Whereas in the wild his white fur would have made him dangerously conspicuous, in captivity Little Snowflake's dazzling pelage posed no problems for him - at least, not initially. However, he did suffer from a common complication associated with albinism - photophobia, a marked visual sensitivity to bright light.

The White Gorilla by Henri Vernes

Tragically, by 2001 he had developed another, much more serious condition that again may well have been due to his albinism - skin cancer. Little Snowflake, of course, lacked any melanin in his skin, the dark pigment that acts as a shield against the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. For a time, he responded to treatment, but by late September 2003 zoo officials were sad to announce that his condition had progressed to a terminal state and that Little Snowflake, by now roughly 40 years old, had only a few months at most to live.

Faced with the shattering news that he was dying, thousands of Barcelona's people visited Little Snowflake each day, paying their respects to one of their city's greatest stars and symbols. And in the early hours of 24 November 2003, Little Snowflake quite literally melted away, euthanised peacefully while asleep by the zoo's vets to spare him any further suffering. Farewell, Little Snowflake. The world will be a duller place without your unique glory, but your essence lives on in each of your many offspring, and one day the great genetic lottery may create more white gorillas in your image, to astonish and enchant all over again (but, hopefully, without resulting in skin cancer).

A 2005 DVD by Nature documenting the life and times of Little Snowflake

POSTCRIPT 1: In June 2013, after sequencing Little Snowflake's genome during the previous year from a sample of frozen blood taken before he died, a team of Spanish researchers (led by Tomas Marques-Bonet from the University of Pompeu Fabra) announced that their results indicated he was very inbred, because his parents shared 12% of their genome, suggesting that they may well have been uncle and niece.

This inbred condition may in turn have caused the mutant allele responsible for his white colouration (now known to be the allele  SLC45A2) to have surfaced.

"You lookin' at me?" - With a large white gorilla fluffy toy at a car boot sale in September 2014 ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

POSTCRIPT 2: On  19 September 2015, I visited Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, England, famed for its very extensive collection of primate species, and also its extremely unusual chocolate-brown chimpanzees (a rare colour mutation). While chatting about these chimps with one of the zookeepers there, I was fascinated to learn from him that not so long ago, while conducting his ongoing wildlife conservation work in the northern portion of the People's Republic of Congo (=Congo Brazzaville) for the World Conservation Society, Dr Thomas Breuer once briefly caught sight of an adult female gorilla with a small white-furred baby gorilla clutching tightly to her. Tragically, however, when he saw this same gorilla again about a week or so later, there was no sign of the white baby gorilla, which was never seen again. It is possible, therefore, that its conspicuous fur colouration attracted the wrong kind of attention from predators, hunters, or possibly even another gorilla.

As far as I am aware, this is the only record of a white gorilla other than Little Snowflake, and I am not aware that it has ever been documented anywhere before, so I am extremely grateful to that zookeeper for passing on to me this very valuable, significant snippet of information.

White gorilla illustration by Herge

Finally: more xenobiology than cryptozoology, and apes in name only, but wonderful all the same - here are the white apes of Barsoom as featured in the excellent 2012 Disney movie 'John Carter', which I thoroughly enjoyed when watching it last Christmas, and which was based upon A Princess of Mars - the first book in the Barsoom series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

John Carter vs the white apes of Barsoom ((c) Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Tuesday 19 November 2013


Salvator water monitors - could the afa be an unknown giant relative?

One of the world's most obscure cryptozoological reptiles is the afa - a Middle Eastern mystery lizard briefly reported by explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger in his book The Marsh Arabs (1964).

Also known as the Madan, the Marsh Arabs inhabited the marshlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the south and east of Iraq, and along the Iranian border – formerly a vast area of wetland covering more than 5.8 square miles. According to Thesiger, who had lived among them intermittently for eight years during the 1950s prior to the Iraqi revolution of 1958, the canoe-borne Madan claimed that the marshes at the mouth of the Tigris in Iraq was home to a monstrous lizard, which they termed the afa.

Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq's marshlands - the abode of the afa

Little else appears to have been documented concerning it. As various species of varanid or monitor lizard are native to this region of Asia Minor, however, it is plausible that the afa may be one too, albeit bigger than those formally recognised by science here - and hence either an unknown giant species, or based upon sightings of extra-large specimens of some known species.

Sadly, however, the question of the afa's taxonomic identity may be nothing more than academic nowadays. This is because following the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqi government initiated a major programme to divert the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers away from the marshes in retaliation for a failed Shia uprising among the Arabs living there. This not only eliminated the Madan's food sources, forcing them to move elsewhere, but also turned the marshes themselves into a desert.

Consequently, the afa may well have been exterminated, especially if it were primarily aquatic, as I am not aware of any post-1991 reports alluding to it. If any ShukerNature reader is aware of any such reports, however, I'd be very interested to receive details.

The desert monitor lizard Varanus griseus, a common Iraqi varanid (Knockout Mouse/Wikipedia)

Thursday 14 November 2013


Hot on the heels of Mirabilis comes my latest, 20th book – Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture, scheduled for publication next month by Coachwhip Publications (Greenville, Ohio), just in time for Christmas! Above is a sneak preview of its cover, which includes one of several spectacular examples of dragon artwork very kindly prepared specifically for it by extremely talented artist Thomas Finley – thanks, Thomas!

Whereas my first dragons book – Dragons: A Natural History (1995) - concentrated on retelling dragon myths in vibrant lyrical prose, this all-new, second dragons book is a 'facts and figures' non-fiction exploration of every aspect of dragons. So except for both of them being illustrated throughout in colour and b/w, the two books are totally different from one another (as opposed to the second merely being an update of the first, which is what some readers mistakenly assumed when first learning about it), and they collectively cover pretty well everything that I've ever wanted to write about dragons - just as my two books on mysterious and mythological cats (Mystery Cats of the World, 1989; and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, 2012) cover pretty well everything that I've ever wanted to write about such cats.

As soon as it is available on Amazon, I'll add a link here (USA) and here (UK) – so keep checking back! Meanwhile, enjoy the additional examples included here of Thomas Finley's beautiful dragon artwork ((c) Thomas Finley), excerpted from my book, which contains more than 170 illustrations in total (some by other celebrated artist friends of mine, such as Anthony Wallis, Richard Svensson, Rebekah Sisk, William Rebsamen, Andy Paciorek, Hodari Nundu, Tim Morris, Pat Burroughs, and Markus Bühler), and including also the following pictures:

Xiuhcoatl, portrayed as a vertical Aztec amphisbaena ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

Hand-coloured photograph of my mother, Mary D. Shuker, wearing a dragon-embroidered kimono during the mid-1940s ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

And finally...

Posing alongside a reassuringly-subdued dragon! ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday 6 November 2013


An unofficial, personal interpretation of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Richard Svensson) and a representation of the Mongolian death worm based upon eyewitness accounts (Ivan Mackerle)

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien contain a number of creatures with some pertinence to cryptozoology, such as giant spiders, dragons, and the dreaded watcher in the water (a monstrous freshwater cephalopod?). Yet perhaps the most unexpected as well as the most fascinating Tolkien reference to a cryptid, which occurs in The Hobbit (1937), is so brief and inconspicuous that it can be easily passed by or even entirely overlooked, with its cryptozoological significance not even registering upon the reader. This is a great tragedy, because, remarkable as it may seem, the mystery beast in question is none other than the extraordinary Mongolian death worm!

J.R.R. Tolkien, aged 24, photographed in 1916 when a soldier in the British Army during World War I (Public domain/Wikipedia)

In 'An Unexpected Party', which is the opening chapter of The Hobbit, the hobbit in question, Bilbo Baggins, has received an unexpected visit at his home, Bag End, from the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves, whom Gandalf has informed would do well to include Bilbo, as a burglar, in their planned quest to retrieve their stolen gold from the great dragon Smaug. The dwarves, however, are far from convinced that Bilbo would be serve well in this capacity, and they air their doubts very vocally in Bilbo's parlour while he is in the drawing-room (but, unbeknownst to them, still within ear-shot of their protestations). Angered by their dismissive attitude, Bilbo strides back into the parlour, and boldly proclaims that he is more than capable of fulfilling the role that they wish him to undertake:

Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert

Brave words indeed, but also very puzzling ones, because they are never explained nor even referred to ever again either within this or any other Tolkien novel. They are presumably said by Bilbo in a figurative sense, to convey that he is willing to tackle anything. But even so, what exactly are the wild Were-worms that they refer to, and where was the Last Desert?

An earthworm

The term 'worm' has a number of different zoological and zoomythological meanings. Its most familiar zoological meaning is as a contraction of 'earthworm' – the common name for most terrestrial oligochaetes. However, many other, unrelated zoological invertebrate taxa that include long, elongate species also have 'worm' in their names – tapeworms, peanut worms, acorn worms, beardworms, thorny-headed worms, ragworms, roundworms, flatworms, etc etc. There are even a few worm-dubbed vertebrates, such as the slow worm Anguis fragilis (a species of limbless lizard).

In zoomythology, 'worm' is one of several related terms – others include 'orm', 'ormer', and 'wyrm' – applied to certain serpent dragons (i.e. limbless, wingless dragons that basically resemble huge serpents except for their dragon-like head), such as Britain's Lambton worm, Linton worm, and Kellington worm. This category of dragon was also often characterised by noxious breath (rather than breathing fire), and the ability to rejoin into a single entity again if cut up into segments.

In Tolkien's works, conversely, he applies the term 'worm' to a very elongate-bodied form of classical dragon, i.e. equipped with four legs, a pair of wings, and the ability to breathe fire. Smaug in The Hobbit was a prime example of Tolkien's dracontological definition of 'worm'.

My trusty 40-year-old copy of The Hobbit, featuring an early sketch by Tolkien himself of the worm Smaug on its cover (illustration © Unwin Books)

Consequently, the were-worm may be a bona fide type of invertebrate worm, albeit one of formidable size and/or temperament if it warranted being fought against (as opposed merely to being trodden upon!); or it could be a Smaug-like dragon. But what about the 'were' component of its name?

This prefix, from the Old English 'wer', generally denotes 'human' - hence a werewolf, for instance, is a human that can transform itself into a wolf, a weretiger is a human that can transform itself into a tiger, and so on. Does this mean, therefore, that a were-worm is a human that can transform itself either into a gigantic invertebrate-type worm or, perhaps more plausibly, into a dragon? Alternatively, is it a true invertebrate-type worm, or a true dragon, but one that exhibits highly advanced, human-like intelligence? Or could it even refer to a being that was half-human, half-dragon, akin in form perhaps to the ancient Indian snake deities or nagas, which possessed human heads (and sometimes thorax and arms too) but serpent bodies? Any of these solutions, however, would involve an entity of truly monstrous nature.

Figurine of a female naga, or nagini (Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the Last Desert, where these were-worms reputedly dwell: all that appears to be known about this arid realm is that according to hobbit folklore, it is located at the very easternmost end of Middle-earth, and therefore lies far to the east of the Shire where the hobbits live.

But where does the Mongolian death worm fit into all of this? As any self-respecting cryptozoologist will know, this much-dreaded cryptid allegedly inhabits the Gobi Desert, and according to the nomads living in fear of it there, it can not only squirt a lethal acidic venom at anyone confronting it, but also kill directly via touch (or even indirectly if a person touches it with an implement made of metal) in a mysterious manner that is extraordinarily reminiscent of electrocution.

Another representation of the Mongolian death worm (Thomas Finley)

Yet even the versatile death worm cannot transform into a human or vice-versa. So what connection can there be between this cryptid and Tolkien's were-worm, other than that they both inhabit deserts?

A comprehensive two-volume study of The Hobbit, entitled The History of The Hobbit, Mr Baggins, was published in 2007 by HarperCollins in the UK (and by Houghton Mifflin in the USA), containing Tolkien's unpublished drafts of The Hobbit, together with commentary written by Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff. These drafts revealed how this novel had undergone many changes, some minor, some major, between the very first version and the final, published edition. One such change is of paramount important to the subject of this ShukerNature post, because it concerns Bilbo's statement regarding the were-worms.

It turns out that in the very first, original draft of The Hobbit, that statement made no mention at all of were-worms, or of the Last Desert. Instead, what it did state, very thought-provokingly, is as follows:

[that Bilbo would walk to] the Great Desert of Gobi and fight the Wild Wire worms of the Chinese.

How remarkable that the Last Desert as named in the final, published edition of The Hobbit was clearly inspired, therefore, by none other than the real-life Gobi Desert. And no less significant is that the ostensibly shape-shifting were-worm was apparently no such thing in the original draft of The Hobbit, being a wire-worm instead. But what did this term signify?

An Oriental dragon

In view of the reference to the Chinese, could it have referred to one of those famously serpentine-bodied Oriental dragons? However, they tend to waft languorously through the skies, or rise up from the seas or from deep freshwater pools, rather than reside in deserts, and are often viewed in ancient Eastern traditions as deities. So this identity for Tolkien's wild wire worms seems somewhat unlikely. And why, in any case, would he have applied the adjective 'wire' to such dragons?

Certainly, the term 'wire worm' is intriguing, inasmuch as in zoological parlance a wire worm is the elongate limbless worm-like larva of a click beetle, belonging to the family Elateridae. But I hardly think that Tolkien was referring to some hobbit-inimical, hyper-aggressive click beetle grub when writing of 'Wild Wire worms'.

Two species of click beetle and their respective wire worm larval form

All of which brings us, therefore, to the Mongolian death worm. This cryptozoological creature has definitely – indeed, exclusively – been reported from the Gobi Desert, and is undeniably zoologically worm-like in overall appearance (its local names, allergorhai-horhai and allghoi-khorkhoi, both translate as 'intestine worm', as it is likened by the nomads to a worm that resembles an animate intestine). But is it conceivable that Tolkien had heard of such an entity, especially way back in the 1930s? After all, Western cryptozoology itself did not become aware of it until the 1990s, when Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle began searching for and writing about the Gobi's reputed inhabitant after having researched its history in Russian and Mongolian documents.

Wood carving of a death worm-like creature in Gobi museum near Dalanzadgad, Mongolia (Ivan Mackerle)

Nevertheless, Tolkien, as a highly erudite, eclectic reader, may indeed have known of such a beast, thanks to the publication in 1926 of On the Trail of Ancient Man, written by eminent American palaeontologist Prof. Roy Chapman Andrews. This bestselling book concerns the American Museum of Natural History's famous Central Asiatic Expedition of 1922 to the Gobi, led by Prof. Andrews, in search of dinosaur fossils, but it also includes a mention of the Mongolian death worm – which as far as I am aware is the earliest such mention of it in any Western publication.

In order to obtain the necessary permits for the expedition to venture forth into the Gobi, Andrews needed to meet the Mongolian Cabinet at the Foreign Office. When he arrived, he discovered that numerous officials were attending their meeting, including the Mongolian Premier. After Andrews had signed the required agreement in order to obtain the expedition's permits, the Premier made one final but very unusual and totally unexpected request:

Then the Premier asked that, if it were possible, I should capture for the Mongolian government a specimen of the allergorhai-horhai. I doubt whether any of my scientific readers can identify this animal. I could, because I had heard of it often. None of those present ever had seen the creature, but they all firmly believed in its existence and described it minutely. It is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head nor legs and is so poisonous that merely to touch it means instant death. It lives in the most desolate parts of the Gobi Desert, whither we were going. To the Mongols it seems to be what the dragon is to the Chinese. The Premier said that, although he had never seen it himself, he knew a man who had and had lived to tell the tale. Then a Cabinet Minister stated that "the cousin of his late wife's sister" had also seen it. I promised to produce the allergorhai-horhai if we chanced to cross its path, and explained how it could be seized by means of long steel collecting forceps; moreover, I could wear dark glasses, so that the disastrous effects of even looking at so poisonous a creature would be neutralized. The meeting adjourned with the best of feeling.

Call me a cynic, but I have the distinct impression that Prof. Andrews did not take the death worm too seriously. In any event, he certainly didn't succeed in finding one, which is probably no bad thing - bearing in mind that he had planned to pick up with steel forceps a creature that had allegedly killed a fellow geologist who had prodded it with a metal rod!

Prof. Roy Chapman Andrews (George Grantham Bain Collection/USA Library of Congress/Wikipedia)

During the 1920s, the American Museum of Natural History sent forth several additional Central Asiatic Expeditions to Mongolia and China, and in 1932 a major work, The New Conquest of Central Asia, was published, documenting all of them, with Prof. Andrews as its principal author. The first volume in the series Natural History of Central Asia (edited by Dr Chester A. Reeds), it contained a brief section entitled 'The Allergorhai Horhai':

At the Cabinet meeting the Premier asked that I should capture for the Mongolian Government a specimen of the Allergorhai horhai. This is probably an entirely mythical animal, but it may have some little basis in fact, for every northern Mongol firmly believes in it and will give essentially the same description. It is said to be about two feet long, the body shaped like a sausage, and to have no head or legs; it is so poisonous that even to touch it means instant death. It is reported to live in the most arid, sandy regions of the western Gobi. What reptile can have furnished the basis for the description is a mystery!

I have never yet found a Mongol who was willing to admit that he had actually seen it himself, although dozens say they know men who have. Moreover, whenever we went to a region which was said to be a favorite habitat of the beast, the Mongols at that particular spot said that it could be found in abundance a few miles away. Were not the belief in its existence so firm and general, I would dismiss it as a myth. I report it here with the hope that future explorers of the Gobi may have better success than we had in running to earth the Allergorhai horhai.

If Tolkien had read either or both of these books, and as someone passionately interested in archaeology it is by no means an unlikely possibility, then he would indeed have learnt of the dreaded death worm, whose sensational nature might very well have impressed him sufficiently to incorporate a version of this creature in his first draft of The Hobbit. Moreover, Andrews's comparison of the death worm's significance to the Mongolian people with that of the dragon to the Chinese may even have inspired Tolkien's otherwise-opaque linking of the wild wire worms to the Chinese.

Dr Jarda Prokopec and Ivan Mackerle seeking the Mongolian death worm in the Gobi Desert (Ivan Mackerle)

As for why the wild wire worms were replaced in later drafts by wild were-worms, and the Gobi Desert replaced by the Last Desert, who can say? Perhaps Tolkien felt that the latter versions were more compatible with the entirely fictitious Middle-earth than were a real desert and a semi(?)-mythical creature from Mongolian tradition referenced to in a real scientific publication.

Of course, this is all very speculative, as there is no firm evidence that Tolkien ever did read or even know of Andrews's above books, but that memorable sentence in Tolkien's original draft of The Hobbit remains a compelling enigma. And if nothing else, it conjures up the truly surreal scenario of a hobbit doing battle with the Mongolian death worm – which is surely worthy of a novel in its own right!

This ShukerNature post is excerpted from one of my current books-in-progress – The Mongolian Death Worm: Do Nomads Dream of Electric Worms? Philip K. Dick and 'Blade Runner' aficionados will need no explanation of my book's subtitle!

For the most comprehensive documentation of the Mongolian death worm ever published, see my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (Paraview: New York, 2003).