Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (August 2007, No. 14)

Notes on the Minhocão

Chad Arment

"I never fail to feel astonished, when I receive one of your letters, at the number of new facts you are continually observing. With respect to the great supposed subterranean animal, may not the belief have arisen from the natives having seen large skeletons embedded in cliffs? I remember finding on the banks of the Parana a skeleton of a Mastodon, and the Gauchos concluded that it was a burrowing animal like the Bizcacha."

Excerpt from letter, Charles Darwin to F. Müller. May 9th, 1877

Thus we have, as far as I am aware, the only direct connection to cryptozoology from Charles Darwin. (Darwin's correct prediction of a giant hawk moth with a 10-inch proboscis used to pollinate a Madagascan orchid is well-known to cryptozoology enthusiasts, but the moth was not ethnoknown, merely speculative, so not strictly cryptozoological.) Many of the well-known names in early science (biology and paleontology, at least) had some interest in reports of unknown animals, especially sea serpents and the like. Lyell wrote on the sea serpent, Owen critiqued the sea serpent, O. C. Marsh had a copy of Oudemans' classic monograph in his library, etc., so it shouldn't be too surprising to discover a connection to enigmatic species, sceptical as it may be, from someone like Darwin who corresponded regularly with scientists all over the globe.

But what is this "great supposed subterranean animal"? Francis Darwin, in the compilation of his father's correspondence in which this letter is noted, mistakenly connects this comment to reports in 1898 of the possible existence of the giant ground sloth in Patagonia. That is not what this letter refers to. Fritz Müller, rather, was investigating reports of the Minhocão, a giant underground worm-like monster, in Brazil. In 1877, he sent a report to the German publication Der Zoologische Garten, and an English summary was soon published in the journal, Nature, after which the story quickly spread to popular journals and newspapers in a vein similar to this (Burke 1879):

The footman in Punch who desired a new animal, as he was tired of beef, pork, and mutton, would be gratified to hear that a new if not true animal has been heard of in Brazil. Fritz Müller, of Itajahy, in Southern Brazil, gives an account of a gigantic worm, known in the highlands of that country as the "Minhocao." The Minhocao is supposed to be about fifty yards long and five broad, and the evidence that some such animal does exist is strong. Another account speaks of the Minhocao as nearly a metre in thickness, with or without legs, with a snout like a pig. The traces of this animal were trenches, which were seen by Herr Kelling, a merchant of Lages. Herr Odebrecht, while surveying near Itajahy, came across traces of the same sort some years ago. Similar trenches were found by Antonio Branco terminating, like some of the former, in a morass. The waters of the pool in the morass appeared at times strangely troubled. The accounts, however, varying, point to the existence of some monster hitherto supposed to be extinct.

The Minhocão has been the subject of some speculation by cryptozoological writers like Bernard Heuvelmans and Karl Shuker, but it remains a "lesser-known" mystery animal because there aren't any sightings after the 1800s. Whether this is because the animal is so elusive, or is now extinct, or never existed, is indeterminable. (Even that last possibility has a puzzle, in that if folkloric animals are purely imaginary and represent improbable explanations for unusual natural occurrences, what now stands in for the Minhocão as an explanation? Why does it not continue to be used in an explanatory manner within the folklore of that region?)

Müller's report, as published in Nature, is as follows:

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 "Minhocao." 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 "Minhocao" 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 "Minhocao." Herr E. Odebrecht, while 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 is now inclined to believe that they were the work of the "Minhocao."

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 "Minhocao." 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 Minhocao 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 Minhocao, 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, José, son of old Branco, and a step-son, who formerly lived in the same house. Herr Müller remarks that the appearance of the Minhocao is always supposed to presage a period of rainy weather.

In the neighbourhood of the Rio dos Papagaios, in the province of Paranà, one evening in 1849 after a long course of rainy weather, a sound was heard in the house of a certain João 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 Minhocao 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 worm­like black animal in the middle of it, about twenty-five metres long, and with two horns on its head.

In the province of São 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 Minhocao 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 Minhocao 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 Paranà 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 Lepidosiren 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 Lepidosiren, if these particulars can be at all depended upon. In any case, concludes Herr Müller, it would be worth while to make further investigations about the Minhocao, 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 race of gigantic armadilloes which in past geological epochs were so abundant in Southern Brazil The little Chlamydophorus 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 Glyptodonts?

Shuker (1995) noted that a similarly described animal was reported in 1866 in Nicaragua.

One enterprising fellow followed up on Müller's report (Anonymous 1880):

Mr. T. J. Moore read the following note from Mr. E. Dukinfield Jones, C.E., Corresponding Member, dated São Paulo, Brazil, December 6th, 1879:—

"When I was at Ypanema, in the Province of São Paulo, I made enquiries from the Manager of the Works there about the supposed new underground monster, noticed by the eminent naturalist, Fritz Müller, in Nature, for Feb. 21st, 1878, p. 325.

"Mr. Moore asked me to find out whether there was any foundation for the report. The 'bicho' was said to be an immense Earthworm, over three feet in diameter, and none knew how long, that ploughed up great furrows and diverted the beds of streams.

"The Manager said he never heard of any such 'bicho,'* or any other 'bicho' out of the common in Ypanema, and he has been there twelve years."

 

* Bicho is a general term for vermin.

Of course, as any field investigator is aware, knowledge of mystery animals within a community is often heterogeneous; some may have heard of reports, while others have no idea that sightings exist.

Müller's account is not the earliest published record of the animal, as the Minhocão was reported several decades earlier (Ainsworth 1856), though in more generic terms (the "local lake monster" story):

"The fishermen of the Araguay and its tributaries declare that a snake, which they compare in shape to an earthworm, but which attains from thirty to forty yards in length, roars so as to be heard many leagues off. They call it Minhocao, and are so much in dread of it as to have abandoned several lakes that abounded in fish, merely because they were frequented by this dreaded ophidian."

And, an even earlier paper was published in 1847:

On the Minhocao of the Goyanese, an enormous species of Lepidosiren.*

By M. Auguste de Saint Hilaire.

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 minhocôes;‡ 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.§

* This notice is taken from an unpublished work on the province of Goyaz.

† The province of Goyaz stretches from nearly 5° 22' latitude south, to the 22d degree, and is greater than France.

‡ Plural of Minhocao.

§ See Memoria Sorbe o descobrimente, etc. da capitania de Goyaz, in the 'Patriota,' 1814.

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 minhocôes.*

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, it became impossible for me to doubt it altogether.

When I was at the Rio des Piloes, I also heard much of the minhocôes. 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 minhocao 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 minhocôes: 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 minhocao, notwithstanding its very round form, was a true fish, provided with fins.

I at first thought that the minhocao might be the Gymnotus carapa, which, according to Pohl,† is found in the Rio Vermelho, which is near to the Rio des Piloes; but it appears from the Austrian writer that this species of fish bears the name of Terma termi, in the country; and, moreover, the effects produced by the Gymnoti are, according to Pohl, well known to the mulattoes and negroes, who often felt them, and have nothing in common with what is related of the minhocao.

 

* Memorias Historicas, &c., vol. ix. p. 332.

† Reise, vol. i. p. 360.

Professor Gervais, to whom I mentioned my doubts, directed my attention to the description which P. L. Bischoff has given of the Lepidosiren;* and, indeed, the little we know of the minhocao agrees well enough with what is said of the rare and singular animal discovered by M. Natterer.

That naturalist found his Lepidosiren in some stagnant waters near the Rio da Madeira and of the Amazon. The minhocao is not only said to be in rivers, but also in lakes. It is, without doubt, very far from the lake Feia to the two localities mentioned by the Austrian traveller; but we know that the heats are excessive at Goyaz. La Serra da Paranahyba e do Tocantim, which crosses this province, is one of the most remarkable dividers of the gigantic water-courses of the north of Brazil from those of the south; the Rio des Piloes belongs to the former, as does the Rio da Madeira.

The Lepidosiren paradoxa of M. Natterer has actually the form of a worm, like the minhocao. Both have fins; but it is not astonishing that they have not always been recognised in the minhocao, if, as in the Lepidosiren, they are, in the animal of the Rio des Piloes, reduced to simple rudiments. "The teeth of the Lepidosiren," says Bischoff, "are well fitted for seizing and tearing its prey; and to judge of them from their structure, and from the muscles of their jaw, they must move with considerable force." These characters agree extremely well with those which we must of necessity admit in the minhocao, since it seizes very powerfully upon large animals, and drags them away to devour them. It is, therefore, probable that the minhocao is an enormous species of Lepidosiren; and we might, if this conjecture were changed into certainty, join this name to that of the minhocao, to designate the animal of the lake Feia and of the Rio des Piloes.

* Annales des Sciences Naturelles. 2me Serie, tom. xiv, p. 116.

Zoologists who travel over these distant countries will do well to sojourn on the borders of the lake Feia, of the lake Padre Aranda, or of the Rio des Piloes, in order to ascertain the perfect truth—to learn precisely what the minhocao is; or whether, notwithstanding the testimony of so many persons, even of the most enlightened men, its existence should be, which is not very likely, rejected as fabulous.—(Comptes Rendus, Dec. 28, 1846.)

The last account of a Minhocão appears to be from an anonymous newspaper story in 1899:

"A Binghamton (N.Y.) soldier, who enlisted in a regiment that was before Santiago, wrote home to his family that a Cuban scout told of a wonderful monster he had encountered in the mountains in the extreme eastern part of the island. It lived near a water course, he said, and burrowed through the earth beneath the stream like an earthworm. It was timid, and when he came suddenly upon it through a jungle of undergrowth it hurried away. In a fleeting glimpse he saw it had a snout like a hog, was covered with scales and, as near as he could judge, was 3 feet in diameter.

"The Cuban's story was looked upon as a Spanish dream, and no attention was paid to it, though the scout was vehement in his declarations of truthfulness and his statements were backed up by comrades whose homes were near that section and who, while not having seen the animal, had witnessed its trenchlike burrows. This tangible evidence in the shape of burrows is enough for a claim that dragons are among Uncle Sam's new acquisitions."

The newspaper article continues on, connecting this tale to the Müller stories. I suspect this Cuban story is pure newspaper fancy, a writer filling space by giving an old story a new (and at that time, politically relevant) setting. Unless firm corroboration is discovered, I would not include Cuba as a likely source for Minhocão sightings.

Is there any likelihood of modern day accounts? Difficult to say—given Brazil's recent political fiasco with regard to Dr. Marc van Roosmalen, I wouldn't personally recommend outsiders doing cryptozoological research in that country, except with great caution. Strictly folkloric interviews, perhaps. The abrupt end in sighting reports at the turn of the twentieth century is certainly odd, but there may be legitimate reasons that haven't been adequately explored. It will probably require intensive regional-focused investigations by Brazilian cryptozoology researchers to determine if the Minhocão is still viable as a cryptid in that country—other countries with Amazon rainforest are also worth a closer look.

Resources:

  • Ainsworth, William Harrison. 1856. Travels in the Central Parts of South America. The New Monthly Magazine 107: 388-404.
  • Anonymous. 1878. A New Underground Monster. Nature (February 21): 325-326.
  • Anonymous. 1880. Proceedings of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, during the Sixty-Ninth Session, 1879-80. No. XXXIV. p. lv.
  • Anonymous. 1899. Monstrous Minhocao. The Mansfield (OH) News (January 11): 7.
  • Burke, Edmund, ed. 1879. The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad, for the year 1878.
  • Darwin, Francis, ed. 1903. More Letters of Charles Darwin: A Record of His Work in a Series of Hitherto Unpublished Letters. Vol. II. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
  • de Saint Hilaire, M. Auguste. 1847. On the Minhocao of the Goyanese, an enormous species of Lepidosiren. The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Exhibiting a View of the Progressive Discoveries and Improvements in the Sciences and the Arts. XLII(Oct. 1846-April 1847): 278-281.
  • Shuker, Karl P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. London: Blandford.

Cryptozoology Bigfoot Stories Giant Snakes Blue Tiger Lake Champlain Monster Mokele-Mbembe

BioFortean Review Articles: