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The Snake-Like Sandfish – Desert Swimmer or Dune Sandworm?

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Using high speed x-ray imaging, physicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have recorded the unusual method of locomotion practiced by the cute-as-a-button sandfish lizard, which avoids the scorching heat of its native Sahara by “swimming” underneath the surface of the desert sand. Any chance these harmless creatures could evolve into big ol’ scary monsters like the sandworms of Arrakis, those fearsome obstacles to the spice-miners of Dune? Better grab your Weirding Module, just in case.

“Sandworms are practically the most famous part of the Dune universe,” says Brian Herbert, Dune author Frank Herbert’s son who wrote the final chapter in the Dune series, Sandworms of Dune. Indeed, the 400-meter long creatures not only provide the people of Arrakis with cheap transportation, they secrete the Universe-controlling spice and they add that all-too necessary element of danger that (along with Sting’s awesome blue diaper) makes David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation a scifi classic.

Although they are menacing, and ugly, and very hard to kill, sandworms at least have a motive that’s easy to understand, which is more than can be said for Dune‘s legged characters. Eschewing the convoluted machinations of Emperor Shaddam IV and the treachery of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, sandworms just want to eat stuff, which they find by following vibrations in the sand — exactly the same way the sandfish (aka Scincus scincus) locates its prey, which is for now mostly insects and scorpions. But what are the chances these four-inch creepy-crawlies will one day carry an entire Atreides army on their backs?

At present the sandfish is dangerous only to the bugs on which it munches, but its sinewy system suggests that it may have already developed prowess in prana-bindu, the martial art practiced by the Bene Gesserit, which enables members of that sisterhood to control each muscle in the body individually. Daniel Goldman, the leader of the Georgia Tech sandfish study, describes the lizard’s remarkable movements: “When started above the surface, the animals dive into the sand within a half second. Once below the surface, they no longer use their limbs for propulsion — instead, they move forward by propagating a traveling wave down their bodies like a snake.” Or, in Dune‘s case, a worm!

Engineers are studying the creature in hopes they might one day be able to apply the sandfish’s technique to sample-collecting robots, which now have a tough time going from a hard surface to a granular one. That’s the official story, anyway. Doubtless these engineers are actually looking to find a cheap and safe process for extracting Melange, the spice. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. And he who controls the spice controls the universe.

No word yet on whether drinking sandfish bile will turn your eyes bluer than blue, which would prove a real boon to people who keep losing their colored contact lenses but might result in some Weirding Way behavior. Whatever the outcome for our sandfish friends, we mustn’t fear: Fear, after all, is the mind-killer.

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