Minhocao

Mystery Amphibian of Central and South America.

Etymology: Portuguese, "giant earthworm."

Variant names: Miñocao, Sierpe ("snake," in Nicaragua).

Physical description: Serpentine. Length, up to 150 feet. Width, 15 feet. Black. Covered in thick, bony armored skin or scales. Two horns on its head. Piglike snout.

Behavior: Amphibious and subterranean. Knocks over trees, collapses roads, and creates new river channels with its burrowing in the ground. Most active after rainy weather. Overturns boats. Attacks and eats horses and cattle when fording rivers or lakes.

Tracks: Leaves a trail of deep, grooved furrows 3-10 feet wide.

Distribution: Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Bahia States, Brazil; near San Rafael de Norte, Nicaragua; Río Ma-didi, Bolivia; Arapey area, Salto Department, Uruguay.

Significant sightings: In 1849, Lebino José dos Santos was traveling near Termas del Arapey, Uruguay, when he heard of a dead Minhocao that had caught itself in a narrow cleft of rock. Its skin was as thick as pine-tree bark, and it had scales like an armadillo.

About 1864, Antonio José Branco found the road close to his home near Curitibanos, Santa Catarina State, Brazil, undermined with 6-foot-wide trenches about 3,000 feet in extent.

In the late 1860s, a Minhocao appeared on the banks of the Rio das Caveiras near Laje, Bahia State, Brazil, and was seen by Francisco de Amaral Varella and Friedrich Kelling. It left a wide trench in swampy ground.

Present status: Not reported since the nineteenth century.

P-'ossible explanations:

(1) A giant, scaly lungfish related to Lepidosiren, according to Auguste de Saint Hilaire. The pectoral fins of the fish might be confused with horns. The South American lungfish (L. paradoxa) grows up to 4 feet long and remains buried in the mud of riverbeds, hibernating until the rainy season when its reproductive cycle begins. It prefers stagnant water where there is little current.

(2) A surviving glyptodont, according to Emil Budde, who supposes it was a burrowing animal like the aardvark. This heavily armored genus of giant armadillos grew to 10 feet long and died out in North and South America around 10,000 years ago. However, the glyptodont's fused body armor would have interfered with tunneling and negated any need to flee from predators, especially since its macelike tail could have delivered a deadly blow even to a giant ground sloth. There is no fossil evidence that glyptodonts burrowed.

(3) A surviving pampathere, a fossil American armadillo that also disappeared about 10,000 years ago; it had more flexible armor than the glyptodont. The adult Holmesina septentrionalis was 6 feet long and weighed more than 500 pounds. Similarly, there is no evidence that this animal produced underground tunnels.

(4) A surviving archaic basilosaurid whale that lives in freshwater lakes and swamps, according to Bernard Heuvelmans. However, it is now known that this animal lacked armored skin.

(5) An unknown giant species of caecilian, a wormlike amphibian that burrows underground, suggested by Karl Shuker. The chemosensory tentacles on its head resemble horns. Some species have scales embedded in their skin. The largest minhocao 337

underground species, Caecilia thompsoni, lives in Colombia, is nearly 5 feet long, and feeds on earthworms; the aquatic genus Typhlonectes lives in South American rivers and lakes and feeds on fishes and invertebrates.

(7) Earthquake damage could be attributed to the Minhocao's tunneling.

Sources: Auguste de Saint Hilaire, "On the Minhocao of the Goyanes," American Journal of Science, ser. 2, 4 (1847): 130-131; Fritz Müller, "Der Minhocao," Der Zoologische Garten 18 (1877): 298-302; "A New Underground Monster," Nature 17 (1878): 325-326; "Underground Monsters," Nature 18 (1878): 389; Emil A. Budde, Naturwissenschaftliche Plaudereien (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1898); Florenzio de Basaldua, Pasado—presente—porvenir del territorio nacional de misiones (La Plata, Argentina, 1901), p. 80; Robert, marquis de Wavrin, Les bêtes sauvages de l'Amazonie et des autres régions de l'Amérique du Sud (Paris: Payot, 1951); Bernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), pp. 298-304; Karl Shuker, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (London: Blandford, 1995), pp. 145-148.

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