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Taking the Bait: The Weird Worminess of the Brazilian Minhocão

Taking the Bait: The Weird Worminess of the Brazilian Minhocão 1

If I was a cryptid, and opinions vary as to whether this is actually the case (just ask my wife, previous girlfriends, psychologist, accountant, and lawyer), and I needed a nice ecological niche to inhabit that limited my contact with the human race (which incidentally, is another important life goal of mine), it seems like the Amazon would be a good choice.  Pencil-necked naturalists, and I say that with all due respect since I actually associate the occupation of “naturalist” with the esteemed fictional scientist and super-spy Stephen Maturin of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin Napoleonic naval warfare series (the source material for the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander for you uncultured heathens out there—and don’t worry, I also have great fondness for uncultured heathens), estimate that there are still at minimum, some 30,000 undiscovered plants alone in the world’s rain-forests, of which the Amazon represents a full 50%). The long and the short of it is that scientists corner me at parties and tell me that we have identified some 1.9 million species on Earth, but nonetheless estimate, which is what scientists are really good at, that there are probably at least 8.8 million species limping around on the planet.  I had to reach for my calculator, which I rarely believe under the assumption that the National Security Administration can feed it any answer that provides an adequate cover story, but this suggests that some 3.45 million undiscovered species are probably lurking under the shade of Amazonian forest canopy.  Consequently, we should probably take Amazonian monsters seriously, particularly monsters like the Minhocão, the giant worm of the Amazon.  No doubt there are countless other awful creatures lurking in the jungle waiting to devour us, but frankly, I like most of my fellow Homo sapiens, am exceedingly suspicious of worms, particularly gigantic ones.

Fear of snakes and worms (and legless land critters in general) is not uncommon, but snakes, despite being all slithery, fangy, and sometimes venomy at least have the decency to put on some skin before they leave the house. Worms look like they’re wearing their guts on the outside. Personally, my verminaphobia is well under control, so I have no problem baiting a hook with one of those little bastards, but it’s hard not to recognize that worms have a number of character flaws that are naturally suggestive of monstrosity, particularly to the vertebrate crowd (among which I sometimes number myself). First, although we give a pass to those unfortunates burdened with an exoskeleton, humans seem to believe that a proper living creature that isn’t a plant should have bones. We like bones. If you have no other redeeming qualities, at least you have a skeleton.  Second, worms ignore us. They come creeping out after a rain en masse, completely oblivious to and uninterested in humans. This not only offends our mammalian vanity, but because we project our own plans for world domination on every other living thing, makes us worry that humans will be incidental or irrelevant to any worm agenda.  We resent being ignored.  Third, worms are the closest living thing we have to a zombie.  One of the most terrifying aspects of zombies is that they keep coming.  Cut off its arms and a zombie merrily continues to try to bite you. Remove its legs, and it will crawl after you.  The mere fact of serious bodily trauma and a dead brain doesn’t phase them.  This is unpleasant to us, as we have a certain expectation that things of the natural world will eventually cease forward motion if you remove enough pieces of them.  Cut a worm in half, and the two distinct pieces just go about their business as if this sudden change in stature meant nothing, which we find inherently disturbing.  And this is true even when the worm in question is only a few inches long.  A monster worm represents all these creepy aspects writ large.  Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that even the small ones eat us when we’re dead.  Obviously, this has me concerned, particularly when encountering stories of gargantuan worms hidden in locales where I’ve been assured that there are millions of unclassified species.

Jules Verne mentions the Minhocão in a story called Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon (although he calls them giant reptilians, artistic license and all), and while plainly a fictional plot device, let’s not forget that the good Mr. Verne was writing about submarines before anybody thought about building them.  Luckily we have no shortage of ostensibly non-fictional accounts of the Minhocão from numerous adventurers in South America, many of which made it into relatively reputable 19th Century science journals.  Renowned French botanist Augustin François César Prouvençal de Saint-Hilaire (1779–1853) spent a lot of time in the backwaters of Brazil in the early 19th century cataloging thousands of flora and fauna, and made note of the local reports of a giant worm in the Amazon.

Luiz Antonio da Silva e Souza, whose acquaintance I made during my travels, and to whom we owe the most valuable researches on the history and statistics of Goyaz, says, in speaking of the lake of Padre Aranda, situated in this vast province, that it is inhabited by minhocoes; then he adds that these monsters—it is thus he expresses himself—dwell in the deepest parts of the lake, and have often drawn horses and horned cattle under the water. The industrious Pizarro, who is so well acquainted with all that relates to Brazil, mentions nearly the same thing, and points out the Lake Feia, which is likewise situated in Goyaz, as also being inhabited by minhocoes. I had already heard of these animals several times, and I considered them as fabulous, when the disappearance of horses, mules and cattle, in fording the rivers, was certified by so many persons, that it became impossible for me altogether to doubt it. When I was at the Rio dos Piloes, I also heard much of the minhocoes; I was told that there were some in this river, and that at the period when the waters had risen, they had often dragged in horses and mules whilst swimming across the river. The word Minhocão is an augmentative of minhoca, which in Portuguese signifies earth-worm; and indeed they state that the monster in question absolutely resembles these worms, with this difference, that it has a visible mouth; they also add, that it is black, short, and of enormous size; that it does not rise to the surface of the water, but that it causes animals to disappear by seizing them by the belly. When, about twenty days after, having left the village and the river of Piloes, I was staying with the Governor of Meiapont, M. Joaquim Alvez de Oliveira, I asked him about these minhocoes: he confirmed what I had already been told, mentioned several recent accidents caused by these animals, and assured me at the same time, from the report of several fishermen, that the Minhocão, notwithstanding its very round form, was a true fish provided with fins (de Saint Hilaire, 1847, p130).

Andrew Wilson, a 19th Century lecturer on zoology, physiology, and comparative anatomy at the University of Edinburgh gathered a wealth of accounts of the Minhocão, which he identified as a gigantic earthworm inhabiting the highlands of southern Brazil, and reasonably pointed out (demonstrating remarkable open-mindedness for a Victorian professor) that there were in fact so many people reporting encounters with the Minhocão, from indigenous Brazilians to travelling Europeans, that while he would be unwilling to definitively conclude what the critter was, there certainly seemed to be something big and wormy in the neighborhood.  For you Frank Herbert fans out there, Wilson also mentioned the physical evidence of worm transit left in the form of deep trenches carved into the ground where the massive creature slithered by, or in other words, “worm sign”.

About eight years ago a Minhocão appeared in the neighborhood of Lages. Francisco de Amaral Varella, when about ten kilometres distant from that town, saw lying on the bank of the Rio das Caveiras a strange animal of gigantic size, nearly one metre in thickness, not very long, and with a snout like a pig, but whether it had legs or not he could not tell. He did not dare to seize it alone, and whilst calling his neighbors to his assistance, it vanished, not without leaving palpable marks behind it in the shape of a trench as it disappeared under the earth. A week later a similar trench, perhaps constructed by the same animal, was seen on the opposite side of Lages, about six kilometres distant from the former, and the traces were followed, which led ultimately under the roots of a large pine tree, and were lost in the marshy land, Herr F. Kelling, from whom this information was obtained, was at that time living as a merchant in Lages, and saw himself the trenches made by the Minhocão. Herr E. Odebrecht, whilst surveying a line of road from Itajahy into the highlands of the province of Santa Caterina, several years ago, crossed a broad marshy plain traversed by an arm of the river Marombas. His progress here was much impeded by devious winding trenches which followed the course of the stream, and occasionally lost themselves in it. At the time Herr Odebrecht could not understand the origin of these peculiar trenches, but he is now inclined to believe that they were the work of the Minhocão (Wilson, 1882, p26).

English geographer and explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), best known for travelling in disguise to Mecca, took a break from his obsession with the sexual practices of indigenous peoples, and mentioned the Minhocão when relating a tale of his adventures in Brazil, although he was fairly skeptical about the existence of the monster.

On the south appeared three long terraces curving into several bays; below the horizontal surfaces of the upper heights long white lines of perpendicular wall, like sea cliffs, capped their slopes, regular as if laid out by the hand. Descending the hill, we found the wind breaking the current into backward-rolling yellow yeast. Occasionally taking shelter under a Girao of four posts with fascined top, we collected the zebra’d snail-shells scattered over the fields. They were met with chiefly in the Maniba, the dwarf manioc, which ripens in six or seven months. At 2:30 we embarked, but shortly afterwards an opalescent “Olho de boi,” crowning a thin column of rain which was falling in little sheets all around, drove us to an anchorage under “As Queimadas.” Here the bank, twenty-two feet high, is cut into broad steps by the floods which spread two miles into the country. The people attribute the extensive caving in of the side, where, by-the-bye, the river forms a gut, to the gambols of the monster” Minhocão” in the days that were. No one, however, would affirm that he had seen the “Worm” (Burton, 1869, p351).

Interestingly, observers appear to agree that the Minhocão had an affinity for water, which does seem to be a standard worm preference.  In fact he noted that an alternative name for the Minhocão was “Mother of Waters”, as the monster was believed to be so large that the water level of rivers rose or fell as the worm passed by.

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Another fabulous aquatic monster, in all likelihood a near relation of our celebrated sea-serpent, is the so-called Minhocão (big worm), a snake of such immense size that the riverines assert with all seriousness that the river rises or falls as the monster either enters or leaves it. It is also called mac d’agua (mother of waters), which name it shares, though, with a sort of Brazilian Lorelei, haunting the picturesque fall of the Taruma, a little influent of the Rio Negro (Keller, 1874, p83).

We don’t relate well to worms, as Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out when he said, “I think we consider too much the luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm”.  Next time you go fishing, take a moment to honor your bait, as you thoughtlessly offer him up as a sacrifice to the fish gods.  If and when the Minhocão come creeping out of the Amazon to assert their rightful place in the natural order of things (that is, on top of the food chain), his older, meaner brother may come looking for a little payback.

Burton, Richard Francis, 1821-1890. Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil: With a Full Account of the Gold And Diamond Mines. Also, Canoeing Down 1500 Miles of the GreatRiverSão Francisco, From Sabará to the Sea. London: Tinsley brothers, 1869.
De Saint Hilaire, M. Auguste.  “On the Minhocão of Goyannes” (1847). From YaleUniversity. Department of Geology and Geophysics. The American Journal of Science, Ser. 2: Vol. 4. New Haven: J.D. & E.S. Dana, 1880.
Keller, Franz, 1835-1890. The Amazon and MadeiraRivers. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
Wilson, Andrew, 1852-1912. Facts and Fictions of Zoology. [New York,: J. Fitzgerald & co., 1882.



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