The Minhocão

Minhocão means “giant earthworm” in Portuguese. The creature, said to dwell in the Amazon Basin (although a similar report comes from Nicaragua), was widely reported during the 1800s, but by the 20th century, seemed to have gone dormant (or extinct). According to legend, the creature burrows into the earth and spends most of its time  underground. It reaches lengths of 150 feet and a width of up to 15 feet.

The publication Nature reported on an enormous earthworm on February 21, 1878. The article appeared in pages 325–326 and was titled “A New Underground Monster.” The article is reprinted below.

A New Underground Monster

A recent communication from Fritz Müller, of Itajahy, in Southern Brazil, to the Zoologische Garten contains a wonderful account of the supposed existence of a gigantic earthworm in the highlands of the southern provinces of Brazil, where it is known as the “Minhocão.” The stories told of this supposed animal, says Fritz Müller, sound for the most part so incredible, that one is tempted to consider them as fabulous. Who could repress a smile at hearing men speak of a worm some fifty yards in length, and five in breadth, covered with bones as with a coat of armour, uprooting mighty pine trees as if they were blades of grass, diverting the courses of streams into fresh channels, and turning dry land into a bottomless morass? And yet after carefully considering the different accounts given of the “Minhocao,” one can hardly refuse to believe that some such animal does really exist, although not quite so large as the country folk would have us to believe.

About eight years ago a “Minhocão” appeared in the neighbourhood 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 neighbours 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, while surveying a line of road from Ita jahy 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 is now inclined to believe that they were the work of the “Minhocão.”

About fourteen years ago, in the month of January, Antonio José Branco, having been absent with his whole family eight days from his house, which was situated on one of the tributaries of the Rio dos Cachorros, ten kilometres from Curitibanos, on returning home found the road undermined, heaps of earth being thrown up, and large trenches made. These trenches commenced at the source of a brook, and followed its windings; terminating ultimately in a morass after a course of from 700 to 1,000 metres. The breadth of the trenches was said to be about three metres. Since that period the brook has flowed in the trench made by the “Minhocão.” The path of the animal lay generally beneath the surface of the earth under the bed of the stream; several pine trees had been rooted up by its passage. One of the trees from which the “Minhocão” in passing had torn off the bark and part of the wood, was said to be still standing and visible last year. Hundreds of people from Curitibanos and other places had come to see the devastation caused by the “Minhocão,” and supposed the animal to be still living in the marshy pool, the waters of which appeared at certain times to be suddenly and strangely troubled. Indeed on still nights a rumbling sound like distant thunder and a slight movement of the earth was sensible in the neighbouring dwellings. This story was told to Herr Müller by two eye-witnesses, Jose”, son of old Branco, and a stepson, who formerly lived in the same house. Herr Müller remarks that the appearance of the “Minhocão” is always supposed to presage a period of rainy weather.

In the neighbourhood of the Rio dos Papagaios, in the province of Parana, one evening in 1849 after a long course of rainy weather, a sound was heard in the house of a certain Joao de Deos, as if rain were again falling in a wood hard by, but on looking out, the heavens were seen to be bright with stars. On the following morning it was discovered that a large piece of land on the further side of a small hill had been entirely undermined, and was traversed by deep trenches which led towards a bare open plateau covered with stones, or what is called in this district a “legeado.” At this spot large heaps of clay turned up out of the earth marked the onward course of the animal from the legeado into the bed of a stream running into the Papagaios. Three years after this place was visited by Senhor Lebino José dos Santos, a wealthy proprietor, now resident near Curitibanos. He saw the ground still upturned, the mounds of clay on the rocky plateau, and the remains of the moved earth in the rocky bed of the brook quite plainly, and came to the conclusion that it must have been the work of two animals, the size of which must have been from two to three metres in breadth.

In the same neighbourhood, according to Senhor Lebino, a “Minhocão” had been seen several times before. A black woman going to draw water from a pool near a house one morning, according to her usual practice, found the whole pool destroyed, and saw a short distance off an animal which she described as being as big as a house moving off along the ground. The people whom she summoned to see the monster were too late, and found only traces of the animal, which had apparently plunged over a neighbouring cliff into deep water. In the same district a young man saw a huge pine suddenly overturned, when there was no wind and no one to cut it. On hastening up to discover the cause, he found the surrounding earth in movement, and an enormous worm like black animal in the middle of it, about twenty-five metres long, and with two horns on its head.

In the province of Sao Paulo, as Senhor Lebino also states, not far from Ypanema, is a spot that is still called Charquinho, that is, Little Marsh, as it formerly was, but some years ago a “Minhocão” made a trench through the marsh into the Ypanema River, and so converted it into the bed of a stream.

In the year 1849, Senhor Lebino was on a journey near Arapehy, in the State of Uruguay. There he was told that there was a dead “Minhocão” to be seen a few miles off, which had got wedged into a narrow cleft of a rock, and so perished. Its skin was said to be as thick as the bark of a pine-tree, and formed of hard scales like those of an armadillo.

From all these stories it would appear conclusive that in the high district where the Uruguay and the Parana have their sources, excavations, and long trenches are met with, which are undoubtedly the work of some living animal. Generally, if not always, they appear after continued rainy weather, and seem to start from marshes or river-beds, and to enter them again. The accounts as to the size and appearance of the creature are very uncertain. It might be suspected to be a gigantic fish allied to Lepidosircn and Ceratodus; the “swine’s snout,” would show some resemblance to Ceratodus, while the horns on the body rather point to the front limbs of Lepidosircn, if these particulars can be at all depended upon. In any case, concludes Herr Müller, it would be worthwhile to make further investigations about the “Minhocão,” and, if possible, to capture it for a zoological garden!

To conclude this remarkable story, we may venture to suggest whether, if any such animal really exist, which, upon the testimony produced by Fritz Müller, appears very probable, it may not rather be a relic of the rare of gigantic armadilloes which in past geological epochs were so abundant in Southern Brazil. The little Chlamydo- phorus truncatus is, we believe, mainly, if not entirely, subterranean in its habits. May there not still exist a larger representative of the same or nearly allied genus, or, if the suggestion be not too bold, even a last descendant of the Glyptodonls?

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