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Mongolian Death Worm – “Death rises from deep below”

So these past two weeks I dealt with ghost ships, philosophy, religion, and not much science at all. Getting away from my roots, I know. Well, this week should be back to normal, and not just that, but I think it’s safe to say that this will have more science stuff than any other review I’ve written. Now, I’ve got a lot to talk about here, so I’ll get started; and while I’ll do my best to avoid it, if you’re not careful, you just might learn something.

Mongolian Death Worm takes place, as you might have guessed, in Mongolia. Daniel (Sean Patrick Flanery, The Boondock Saints, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) is a treasure hunter searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan (more on that later), when he encounters Alicia (Victoria Pratt, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Mutant X) and her assistant, doctors stranded while on their way to the village of Sepegal to help fight an outbreak of an unknown illness. Meanwhile, Patrick (Drew Waters, Friday Night Lights, Inspector Mom), head of an experimental oil drilling plant, is working with shady persons unknown to move a mysterious shipment out of the plant before his corporation sends people to the site to figure out what’s causing widespread machinery malfunctions. Oh, and Mongolian death worms appear randomly throughout the movie to kill people.

Top left – Daniel; top right – Alicia; bottom left – Patrick; bottom right – Mongolian death worm

As far as SyFy Channel movies go, the acting in this one was mediocre. (For reference, the best acting in a SyFy original would roughly correspond to “mediocre” in the real world, maybe a bit better than that.) The script, on the other hand, ventured solidly into the unfortunate, with many phrases repeated between scenes, little natural flow in conversation, and a general lack of evidence of effort. Of course, the line delivery was oftentimes wooden as well, making it hard to distinguish where the problem truly lay. The CGI was standard, though it seemed to get worse as the movie went on, until in the last scenes, the drilling plant “exploded” without any debris or shrapnel and without any semblance of real fire. (Speaking of explosions, we again encounter in this movie the moment where a gas tank gets hit by a bullet and the whole vehicle goes up in a fireball. Because for some reason, apparently everyone in these movies uses incendiary bullets, I guess? I dunno. Something like that.)

All rifles use explosive rounds all the time always

In addition to death worms, we also encountered a number of clichés in this one. For a start, there was no attempt whatsoever to leave the audience guessing as to who would die next – a person would wander off alone, hear a strange noise, and get et. By the middle of the movie, I was already waving goodbye to characters as they found themselves in such a situation. Additionally, there was the mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché so common these days. Daniel initially charges Alicia and her aide for a ride to Sepegal, predictably setting off a discussion about how he only looks out for himself and how he’s such a scoundrel etc. At the end, he returns all the money and has earned the admiration of Alicia (though he does have another reason to return the cash, to be explained below). Finally, there’s heavy environmentalist overtones throughout the whole movie. See, it turns out that the drilling plant is using heated water to melt the permafrost in the soil so as to be able to access oil. This melting causes the worms to wake up from hibernation and start terrorizing everyone, and the only way to stop the worms from continuing to hatch is to destroy the plant. We get it. Humanity is killing the planet and will eventually cause its own demise. Can we go back to watching worms kill people now? Thanks.

No situational awareness at all; is it any wonder he dies?

Normally, I’d bring up small continuity points here, like how we’re supposed to believe that Daniel gets the stuffing beat out of him but two minutes later shows up looking untouched, but I’ve got a lot to talk about that’s more interesting, so next up, some folklore and legends.

As I mentioned above, Daniel is searching for Genghis Khan’s tomb, a site which is to this day undiscovered (despite extensive desire and use of diverse methods). In the movie, death worms are supposed to be the guardians of the tomb, so naturally, when they start killing everyone, Daniel gets excited. In actual folklore, there is no connection I could find between the worms and the Khan; however, at least one hypothesis posits that the worms (generally agreed to only live in the Gobi Desert and not in Central Mongolia, where the movie takes place) could be guardians of a lost culture that once thrived in the desert area. The movie also has the worms interfering with electromagnetic signals, lining up with legends that say the worms can possibly kill via electric discharge. (Along these lines, the movie implies a link between the worms and the illness in Sepegal, which jives with stories of the worms’ ability to kill from a distance.) Conspicuously absent from any story I could find was mention of a buried treasure, which, as the plant explodes at the end of the movie, comes raining down around Daniel and Alicia, and which was the mystery shipment Patrick was bent on moving and the reason Daniel returns Alicia’s money.

“Should I spit acid at or electrify my prey today? So many choices!”

Now on to the real science!

Let’s accept, for a moment, that these worms exist in all their Mongolian deadliness. The movie presents them as man-sized (at the smaller end), segmented worms which live in a colony, have vaguely prehensile tongues, hibernate when frozen, attack prey from the front, and can be killed with gunfire. I’m going to explore these aspects one at a time, starting with the size.

It doesn’t look so tough!…

How big do worms get? I mean, really. Worms are small, right? We fish with them. They help our gardens grow. But they don’t get huge, right? Right? Yeah, not so much with the small worms. For example, some sea worms can grow to be four feet in length; some earthworms up to 22 feet; and there’s at least one species of worm found off the coast of Britain that can grow up to 180 feet in length, and emits toxic mucus, to boot. So I’m going to go ahead and say that the worms in this movie can be as long as they want, thank you very much, please don’t eat me. As for the thickness of the worms, I have my doubts that they would be able to breathe efficiently based on the surface-area-to-volume ratio. See, the larger an object gets, the more its surface area and volume increase. The problem is that volume increases as a cube, while surface area only increases as a square. This means that, at some point, diffusion of gas across the skin will not be able to occur quickly enough to supply oxygen to the body. Since many worms rely on this method of respiration (certainly many annelids, which is my best placement for the worms in this movie), there is a necessary upper limit on the surface-area-to-volume ratio, above which oxygen could not be absorbed quickly enough nor carbon dioxide expelled quickly enough to sustain life. I can’t guarantee that these worms would be above that ratio were they real, but I do feel comfortable guessing that they would be. Also, without a rigid skeletal structure, they would most likely either collapse under their own weight (this gets at why, say, ants can have such large ratios between body size and leg size but humans can’t) or would have skin so rigid and thick it would be difficult to move. Also, the one thing I feel I can say with certainty is there is next to no possibility that worms of this size could crawl across the ceiling, though they could have some sort of adhesive or such that went unmentioned in the movie.

“Look, ma! No hands!”

Spider-Man this ain’t

Next, do worms live in colonies or nests? While I could find no evidence supporting the idea that worms form nests, I also could not find much contradicting that idea, other than the abstract of an article about one species of polychaete, a class of annelids, wherein worms fought invading worms in various circumstances, implying that, at least in that species, there is a certain amount of territoriality which could be common to annelids in a larger sense. On the other hand, here’s one (admittedly discussing trematodes, a class in phylum Platyhelminthes, or flatworms) which not only talks about the parasites forming colonies, but about pretty epic battles between warriors from different colonies. So it’s anyone’s guess whether the death worms in the movie would actually live in a colony society.

Dinner at the Deathworms’

Do worms have tongues? Well, yes and no. Some species of annelid don’t have tongues so much as the ability to essentially turn their “throats” inside out, a process called eversion. They can use this to capture prey, some even being known to have sticky pads for just such a function. And of course, leeches sometimes have teeth. So while the movie worms could be accused of combining features of different classes and subclasses of annelids, the idea of a projectile tongue that can be used to grab prey is sound.

Left – eversion; right – not his best day

Can worms hibernate? First of all, the movie did not talk about hibernation, but rather cryptobiosis. The main difference between the two is that, in hibernation, metabolic activity gets depressed but continues; basically, the organism continues to function “normally”, but at a much slower rate. With cryptobiosis (a whole category of various states, including cryobiosis, wherein inactivity is stimulated by low temperature; for a more technical example of cryptobiosis, click here), metabolic activity stops; the organism doesn’t breathe, doesn’t eat, doesn’t grow, and can’t repair damage to itself, among other things. Cryptobiosis is typically in response to severe environmental conditions, such as desiccation or a lack of oxygen, and the state can persist indefinitely. Most people are already slightly familiar with cryptobiosis, as that is the phenomenon whereby brine shrimp can be mailed to, for example, pet stores to become fish food. So what does this have to do with worms? As it turns out, pretty much nothing, at least not earthworms (part of Oligochaeta, a class of annelids). See, earthworms do one of two things, typically, when temperatures get cold enough – they either burrow deep into the soil (up to six feet or so) and make a mucus-lined chamber for themselves (as a side note, this is not hibernation, as the worms will return to the surface if it gets warm enough regardless of how much time has passed since entering the chamber), or they die from the cold but lay eggs in protective cocoons to prevent freezing. Is cryptobiosis unheard of in annelids? I don’t know. Is it common? I suspect not, though I can’t find any evidence one way or another. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely the worms would exist indefinitely in permafrost (presumably the species would have evolved to take permafrost into account rather than enduring it via cryptobiosis), and it is unlikely, were the eggs to persist in a cryptobiotic state, that the worms would grow as large as they did as quickly as they did in the movie. Not impossible, necessarily, but unlikely.

Take away the cryptobiosis, and this animal is entirely plausible in every other way

On to hunting. Do worms hunt? Short answer – yes, some do. Given the huge amount of diversity within phylum Annelida, it’s no surprise that some hunt while others don’t. In fact, there are even some worms in the phylum which have jaws with which to seize prey. On the other hand, plenty of worms in the phylum sit still and wait for food to wander by, so let’s agree that death worms could actively hunt prey. I still have an issue with them, though – multiple scenes show them attacking prey from the front. Given that I have no idea what normal worm predatory strategies are, I’m going to draw comparisons to other predators for a moment. Many big cats (lions, cheetahs, etc.) get as close to prey as possibly before attacking, but don’t pursue for long distances. Dogs (wild dogs, wolves, etc.) tend to hunt in packs, and are more suited to longer chases. In either case, though, the most successful predator is one which stays hidden until striking. Now we look at our worms, which, on multiple occasions, reveal themselves to their prey for a couple of seconds before striking. In all cases, of course, the victims stand petrified with fright, but still, it doesn’t seem to me to be terribly efficient predatory behavior, especially considering that the worms can’t move all that quickly. So I’ve got to say that the way the worms hunt doesn’t really make much sense, though the fact that they hunt is plausible.

“Staring contest! Go!”

“Hey! Wormy! Down in front!”

Finally, the humans in the movie start shooting worms left and right and naturally (at least for our heroes), all it takes is one gunshot to the head and the worm’s down for the count. But does that really make sense? Let’s start here, wherein we learn that there are at least moderately reliable accounts of some species of worm growing into two worms after being bisected. There are two points of significance with that. The first is that cutting a worm in half is a much more serious wound than a gunshot (relatively speaking, it’s the difference between, say, cutting a common earthworm in half and poking a hole in it with a needle, or maybe a nail or something). In other words, if a worm can survive being cut in half, there’s no reason to assume it can’t survive a gunshot. The second point here is that destroying the brain won’t necessarily kill the worm, as cutting it in half can just lead to two worms (the origin part of one of which must, of necessity, have lacked a brain). Now, not only do worms not necessarily need brains in order to survive and regenerate, but the brain would be (presumably) extremely difficult to hit with a bullet if you didn’t know exactly where to aim. Thus, I have to conclude that shooting a giant worm to death really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly not if you’re using a handgun. On the other hand, suffocating a worm should be pretty easy. As discussed above, worms breathe via transdermal intake of oxygen. For this to work, at least in earthworms, the skin must remain moist (which is why worms die soon-ish when they’re above ground). So if giant earthworms were rampaging through Mongolia, they couldn’t spend too long at all above ground, especially given the (previously discussed) surface-area-to-volume ratio. In other words, really all the people needed to do was outrun them. But that makes for a lame movie, I suppose.

“Come and get me, copper!”


So that’s that. Science in death worms. Now, let’s get out there and see what kind of sharks we can catch with them as bait!