I’m an addict. I collect scientific papers and research articles. There’s not enough time to read them all, but I save them anyways, thinking I’ll get to them on a rainy day. The problems is, it doesn’t rain that much here. I’d call myself a hoarder, but I’m usually well organized, and the collection only takes up bytes – kilo, mega, giga – on hard drives. Now my papers from my grad school, post doc, and pharma days? That’s a different story. I wasn’t paying for paper and toner back then, so I have a huge hard copy collection in my basement…for a rainy day. Never mind that I’ve been out of the drug discovery and development game for 5 years, I still can’t stomach the idea of recycling them all. But enough about me and my hoard, you came here for a hallucinogenic worm tale, which started from an uncategorized paper I found on my hard drive.
Between 1816 and 1823 famed French botanist Augustin de Saint-Hilaire traveled throughout Brazil collecting (hoarding?) tens of thousands of biological specimens. In all he acquired over 2,000 species of plants and almost 20,000 animal species. Upon his return to France he published many of his records, and in 1824 he wrote about an unusual source of food and medicine used by the native Malalis people of Brazil (1). He described a grub which they called bicho de taquara – bamboo worm – because it was found in the stems of bamboo. As a food source, the head is considered a poison, and when it, along with the intestines, is removed, the remaining fatty goo can be sucked out of it. It’s not something I’d be prone to do, but for Augustin de Saint-Hilaire, the phrase “when in Rome” applies:
“He broke open the creature and carefully removed the head and the intestinal tube, and sucked out the soft whitish substance which remained in the skin. In spite of my repugnance, I followed the example of the young savage, and found, in this strange food, an extremely agreeable flavour which recalled that of the most delicate cream.”
As a medicine, the Malalis would remove the heads and dry the grub, then grind it into a powder. When applied as a poultice it was said to heal wounds. When faced with sleeplessness, they would swallow a dried bicho de taquara, without the head, but with intact intestines. Apparently it worked:
“they fall into a kind of ecstatic sleep, which often lasts more than a day, and similar to that experienced by the Orientals when they take opium in excess. They tell, on awakening, of marvelous dreams; they saw splendid forests, they ate delicious fruits, they killed without difficulty the most choice game; but these Malalis add that they take care to indulge only rarely in this debilitating kind of pleasure.”
If we could all have such dreams. I find it interesting that Saint-Hilaire mentioned that the Malalis rarely partook in “swallowing the worm,” something most Cancun tequila swilling spring breakers can’t claim. This points towards the non-addictive nature of the bicho de taquara, which falls in line with most hallucinogenics and possibly lack of dopamine activity, which acts as a “reward” center.
So just what is the bicho de tacuara? Well, that’s hard to say exactly, as Saint-Hilaiare may be the only source of such information, and he’s dead. The Malalis are also gone, and with them their knowledge of the hallucinogen. But there is a moth, and its larvae, known as bicho de taquara – the Brazilian Myelobia smerintha.
Know what other Brazilian native eats bicho de taquara? The Capuchin monkey, of organ grinder fame. They have been observed breaking into bamboo to capture insects, including Myelobia smerintha (2). These things are creepy. They’re probably the smartest monkey on the block and every time I see them I think they’re plotting my death. Don’t be fooled by their doe-eyes and charming smiles, they’re evil.
Remember the monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark? The one that was all sweet around Indiana Jones and his friends but was working for Barranca and the Nazis the whole time? A Capuchin. Maybe that’s where I developed my dislike of these creatures. An enemy of Indy is an enemy of mine.
Now I’m not suggesting that hallucinogenic use will turn someone into an evil psychopath, humans have a way of doing that without any help. I’m just thinking that maybe – just maybe – these creatures are “swallowing the worm” and, just like the Malalis, having dreams that “they killed without difficulty the most choice game.” And I’m their prey.
1. Britton, E.b. “A Pointer to a New Hallucinogen of Insect Origin.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 12.3 (1984): 331-33.
2. Galetti, Mauro, and Fernando Pedroni. “Seasonal Diet of Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus Apella) in a Semideciduous Forest in South-east Brazil.” Journal of Tropical Ecology 10.01 (1994): 27-39.