Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Mongolian Death Worm

It is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head nor leg and it is so poisonous that merely to touch it means instant death. It lives in the most desolate parts of the Gobi Desert…
The 'Mongolian Death Worm', called olgoi-khorkhoi by the locals is a legendary animal that has preoccupied the imagination of both the inhabitants and travelers in the region. It is said to live the southern Gobi Desert where it terrorizes travelers with its deadly abilities to project acid that, upon contact, turns anything yellow and corroded. It is described as a bright red worm with a wide body that grows up to 1.5m length.

However, until recently there was only one record for a native Mongolian earthworm (Eisenia magnifica) and some authors believed that in those regions with extreme low amounts of rainfall (less than 400mm annually) no species let alone an endemic can exist. But now with the help of DNA Barcoding two new sub-species of earthworms, Eisenia nordenskioldi mongol and Eisenia nordenskioldi onon, are reported from the same region. Although neither of them possesses the fatal characteristics of olgoi-khorkhoi, the sibling species exhibit the ability to partly regrow body parts when cut in two. Relatives of the new sub-species are found in habitats as diverse as high mountains, deserts and hot-springs. They demonstrate extreme temperature tolerances and survival ranges thriving in environments with temperatures ranging from as little as -30°C up to +40°C. 

Eisenia nordenskioldi mongol was named after the region of its discovery. The name Eisenia nordenskioldi onon was inspired by the Onon River in Outer Mongolia, where Genghis Khan was born and grew up. The region is also supposed to be his final resting place.

Whether olgoi-khorkhoi really exists, and whether the two new sub-species of the Siberian Eisenia nordenskioldi species-complex are in any way related to it, is yet to be confirmed. In the meantime it can continue to inspire peoples minds.

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