Unexplained Mysteries

Man-eating Trees and Mongolian Death Worms

By J.M.Sinclair

Man Eating Plant


The twin fields of cryptozoology and cryptobotany are bursting with tales of strange and unusual plants and animals. While the public at large is generally aware of such cryptid superstars as the Loch Ness Monster and the Sasquatch, few have ever heard of the Man-Eating Trees of Madagascar, or the Mongolian Death worms.

In 1881 a magazine called the South Australian Register ran a story by a traveler called Carle Liche. He tells us that while travelling through Madagascar, he was horrified to watch the native Mdoko tribe sacrifice a woman to a man-eating tree




He stated that the places the woman near the tree, and after laying there for a few seconds, the tree's tendrils took the woman by the neck and strangled her, before apparently engulfing the body. In his 1924 book "Madagascar, land of the man-eating tree" former Michigan Governor Chase Osborn recounted Liche's tale, and mentioned that missionaries and locals in Madagascar all knew of the deadly tree. Unfortunately, Liche's accounts may have been an exaggeration, as both the Mdoko tribe nor the man-eating tree have ever been found, and the governor may simply have been embellishing a little bit more to make for good reading.

From the steppes of Mongolia comes another type of creature that is particularly memorable by its rather disgusting appearance. The Mongolian Death Worm is a supposedly poisonous worm that has the appearance of a bright red bloody cow intestine. That's right, a deadly cow intestine. Said to be about four feet long, the animal is said to spit a yellow substance when threatened that is deadly on contact with human skin, and is even claimed to be able to kill with electricity in a manner similar to the electric eel. Shocking, but does it really exist? Expeditions to Mongolia to find the creature haven't been particularly fruitful, however the story is so wide-spread that there may well be truth to it. With new species of animal, even large ones, seemingly being found all the time in such places as the jungles of Vietnam, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suspect that the same may be found under the earth in the extremely desolate Gobi desert.

Madagascar and Mongolia aren't the only places where one finds man-eating trees and deadly worms. South America is also a fruitful land for stories of deadly trees, and even more amazing are the stories of the enormous Minhocao. This giant cryptic has been reported to live in the forests of South America and has been claimed to reach astonishing lengths of up to 75 feet. Old accounts tell of a huge tunnel digging worm with two appendages on its head, perhaps similar to those of a snail or slug. Unfortunately, no one has seen the Minhocao in over a century, suggesting that it has either gone extinct or may never have existed at all.

Often cryptids are misidentified known animals, sometimes they defy explanation. In any of the cases detailed in this article, there would be few animals with appearances close enough to be mistaken. It might be that the man-eating trees simply stem from exaggerated accounts of venus fly traps, but the worms are more difficult to dismiss. Slimy worms aren't particularly scary, nor do they make good fodder to make up legends about. They are simply worms, and stories of 75 foot long docile giants and blood red disgusting-but-deadly creatures are not something that cultures would normally invent out of thin air. They probably have a grain of truth somewhere, hidden along with the animals themselves in the least explored places on planet earth.

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The jungle seems a tangle of vines and stalks and leaves. The only way you move through the impenetrable wall of green is with a machete. Hacking with the knife, you can slowly make some progress, but the work is exhausting. Finally, you seem to be reaching the jungle's edge. Only a few heavy vines block your way. You bring back the knife to swing at one, but your native guide stays your hand.

"No sir! Do not touch that one! Go around! It is dangerous!"

You scoff at him. "Go around? What for? We're almost out. It's just a vine!"

You swing your machete and it strikes the three-inch-thick vine, slicing it neatly in two. Suddenly the jungle around you comes alive. The vines in the nearby trees start moving. You step back, but it's too late. One wraps around your ankle. You raise your knife to cut through it, but before you can swing, another vine twists around your arm, stopping it. A third vine, as thick as a fire hose, curls around your waist and you are knocked off your feet. It drags you into the thick underbrush. Suddenly the jungle parts up ahead and you see an orange pod as tall as a man. It opens and you are thrust into its dark interior. You find yourself waist deep in a sticky liquid that burns your skin. As the leaves close up behind you, trapping you, your guide's voice can be heard...

"Sir, you should have listened!"

A strange tale, but could it be true? Is there flora that traps animals and consumes meat? Are there really man-eating plants?
Well, the former is certainly true. There are many plants in the world that eat meat. The great biologist, Charles Darwin, was fascinated by them and spent fifteen years of his life studying them.

Carnivorous Plants

All plants, unlike animals, are capable of producing their own food. They take carbon dioxide out of the air, water from the ground, light from the sun and make food through a process called photosynthesis. In addition to sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, the plants also need certain minerals to survive. These they usually take out of the soil though their roots.

Plants living in wet areas, such as bogs, have a problem, though. The water in these areas carry away many of the nutrients the plants need to grow. Some plants have found a solution to this problem by becoming carnivorous, which means "meat-eating." Rather than get the minerals they need from the soil, they trap animals, mostly insects, and take the nutrients out of the unfortunate victim's body.

Darwin originally called these flora insectivores. Later scientists decided that the plants ate enough animals (other than insects) that the term carnivore should be used.

Meat-eating plants use several different mechanisms to trap their prey. Pitcher plants have leaves that grow into a vase-like container with a hood that overhangs the opening. The edge of the hood is covered with a sweet-smelling nectar that attracts insects. Inside this lid are downward-pointing hairs that lead the insects further into the plant and slippery wax surfaces that are difficult for the victims to crawl on. At the bottom of the vase-like structure is a pool of chemicals that will digest insects if they fall in. Various versions of the plants use different methods to get the victims into their pools. For example, the yellow trumpet has a substance in its nectar that paralyzes any insect that eats it. Once the victim takes a sip, he soon tumbles into the pool and is digested.

Other plants, like the sundew, use nectar to get insects to land on a leaf covered with sensitive hairs. Each hair has a tiny bead of sticky liquid on top. When the insect lands, it sticks to the hairs it is touching. As the victim struggles, other hairs bend over and attach themselves to secure the meal even further. The sticky liquid soon enters the insect's breathing holes and it suffocates. Digestive juices soon follow and the sticky liquid and the soft parts of the victim's body are soon dissolved away to be recovered and used by the plant.

Perhaps the strangest and most well-known carnivorous plant is the Venus flytrap. The flytrap, whose scientific name is Dionaea muscipula ("mousetrap of Venus") looks like a small circle of strange leaves sitting close to the ground. Sometimes it is topped by a long stem with small white flowers. These plants are so strange that folklore has it that they come from outer space and only grow near the sites of meteor impact craters.

The truth is that the flytrap comes not from the second planet from the sun, but from North and South Carolina. Its strange leaves have a lob at the end that looks like a small, green clamshell with teeth. Inside the clam shell are two sensitive hairs. If an insect lands on the lob and touches both of the hairs, or touches one of the hairs twice in a short amount of time, the trap is sprung. The two sides of the clamshell leaf close quickly on the insect. The "teeth" intermesh, making sure the animal cannot escape. After the trap closes, glands on the inner surfaces of the shell release digestive juices.

Man-Eating Plants

Are any of these carnivorous plants capable of posing a threat to humans? Not really. The largest of the meat-eating plants is a relative of the pitcher plant named Nepenthes. It grows in the rain forests of Southeast Asia as a vine up to 50 feet in length. The pitchers sometimes grow to be a foot in length. Nepenthes traps mostly insects and small frogs, though animals as large as a rat have been found dead digesting in its juices. Some Nepenthes pitchers that have been found are large enough to hold four quarts of liquid.

The Nepenthes is not a threat to humans, however. In fact the local people have found ways to make them useful. The pitchers can be cleaned out and used to cook rice, while its long, strong vines serve as ropes.

If no carnivorous plant known is large enough to consume a human, where did the idea of man-eating plants come from?

The Corpse Flower

The plant responsible for starting these rumors might be Amorphophallus titanum otherwise known as the "corpse flower." Amorphophallus titanum, which is said to be the biggest, smelliest flower in the world, looks like something that could eat a human being. When it blooms it can reach at height over nine feet in height and smells like a mixture of rotting flesh and excrement. The pungent odor attracts bees which are trapped in the flower until they are covered with pollen. Then they are released to fertilize other plants.

Corpse Man eating flower

The Amorphophallus titanum, or "Corpse Flower" has been known to grow as high as nine feet.

A blooming Amorphophallus titanum's "flower" (actually it is technically a leaf or spathe) can be three feet across. It is notoriously difficult to get a titanum to bloom outside of its native Indonesia, and botanical gardens around the world often try for decades without success. Bloomings of the Amorphophallus titanum have happened only about a dozen times in the United States since the first success at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937.

When the plant does bloom it moves quickly. It can grow as fast as 4 inches per day. The period when the "flower" is open lasts only about two days.

Although the Amorphophallus titanum looks a lot like you would imagine a man-eating plant to look like, and it even smells like somebody is dead inside, it is not carnivorous.

Ironically, people are a lot more dangerous to carnivorous plants than the plants are to people. The pitcher plant and the venus flytrap live in wetland areas which are being destroyed by human development. Also the popularity of these plants is also working against them. Commercial plant collectors have stripped areas of the venus flytrap in an effort to provide them to consumers. Also many species of North American pitchers, whose leaves are in demand by florists, have been so decimated by collectors that they may disappear from the wild completely.

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