Monster of the Week: The All-Powerful Sarlacc

The mighty Sarlacc...  Imgur/Lucasfilm
The mighty Sarlacc... Imgur/Lucasfilm

Travel to the Great Pit of Carkoon on Tatooine's Northern Dune Sea and you'll encounter the yawning maw of the almighty Sarlacc. The vast majority of the organism’s bulk hides beneath the sand, leaving only its spiked-and-tentacled mouth exposed. But don’t worry. Fall inside and you’ll have plenty of time to explore every corner of its digestive system.

Presumably, the Sarlacc normally waits for one of the planet’s many mega fauna (such as the dewback or the bantha) to wander close enough to fall in or succumb to its grasping tentacles. If this seems a rare enough occurrence, let’s stop to consider its alleged 1,000-year digestive cycle. This detail suggests an incredibly slow metabolism, so it might not require frequent feeding. But of course, this particular Sarlacc is something of a pet, sustained by regular feedings from Jabba’s pleasure barges.

There’s a lot of speculative biology out there about the Sarlacc and I don’t wish to simply regurgitate it here. But I would like to focus in on a few natural-world organisms that match the Sarlacc’s ravenous ingenuity.

Let’s meet a few…

The Bobbit Worm

The predatory polychaete worm Eunice aphroditois’ unofficial nickname is confusing at best (SA has a great discussion on the matter right here), but there’s no denying the creature’s monstrous nature.

It’s essentially a rainbow-colored marine death worm, buried in the sand and ready to strike at passing prey.

The Bobbit Worm.
The Bobbit Worm.
Franco Banfi/WaterFrame/Getty

E. aphroditois can reach lengths of nearly 9.8 feet (2.99 meters), but most of its segmented body remains coiled in the sand. An array of five antennae help it sense prey -- a feature reminiscent of the Sarlacc’s rootlike system of feelers, spines and tentacles. The worm strikes with incredible speed, whipping out its mandible-studded pharynx to capture prey. Some Sarlacc sightings mention a similar structure that protrudes from the creature’s main orifice, but I’m simply too old fashioned to buy into such notions.

The sea is home to other bottom dwelling ambush predators as well, including the devil scorpionfish and the warteye stargazer, but the “Bobbit worm” takes the cake for its bizarre appearance.

The Antlion

The most famous natural world Sarlacc counterpart is undoubtedly the antlion. It’s actually the larval form of the rather nondescript flying Myrmeleontidae insect (of which there are some 2,000 individual species).

The larval antlion boasts a globular abdomen, a narrow head and a set of vicious, sickle-shaped mandibles. They make their home at the bottom of shallow pit traps, which they produce by burrowing backwards in a circle, flicking loose soil out as they go. Once they’re situated, only their mandibles remain visible.

The Antlion.
The Antlion.
Media for Medical/Contributor/Getty

When ants or other small insects fall into the pit, the antlion throws up more sand to keep them from escaping. Then they grapple their victim, piercing its body and sucking out the fluids. Afterwards, the antlion flicks the desiccated corpse out and resets the pit for its next meal.

Like the Sarlacc, the antlion benefits from a slow metabolism. As Jonah Michael Ulmer points out in this blog post, the antlion can go months without food and DOESN’T EVEN HAVE AN ANUS. It simply puts off defecation until it assumes its mature form.

Interestingly enough, while the larval stage can last up to three years, the flying adult stage lives for a mere 25 days or so. As such, it’s just as well that we mainly know it for its pit-dwelling, ant-ambushing and anus-free younger days.

The Welwitschia

Our previous examples are all animals, but the Sarlacc might very well be more of a plant. Numerous carnivorous specimens lure insects to their deaths, but as science writer Joe Hanson points out on his blog, a particular desert plant from Africa’s Namib desert resembles the Sarlacc in many ways

The welwitschia.
The welwitschia.
Julia Waterlow/Corbis/Getty

Welwitschia mirabilis isn’t a carnivorous plant, but it is a living fossil that makes its home in the desert. A pair of tentacle-like leaf extensions extend from a deep central taproot, giving it a uniquely alien appearance.

Plus, as Hanson points out, this resembles speculative illustrations of the Sarlacc’s hidden anatomy. By the way, Hanson also speculates that the Sarlacc is anusless. I wonder if the creature follows the antlion's lead and poops during the next stage of its life cycle -- and what monstrous form might that be?

Individual Welwitschia specimens can live for 1000 or even 2000 years -- as long as it takes the all-powerful Sarlacc to digest a battle-hardened galactic bounty hunter or a team of 1980s stunt performers:

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.