Dune: sandworms explained

In Dune, planet Arrakis is populated by giant sandworms - what are they, and what role do they play in the sci-fi movie?

Dune: sandworms explained

What are sandworms in Dune? Let’s be honest, while all the space politics, explosions, and wild architecture are cool, the sandworms are the main stars of Dune. The giant creatures, the width of a highway and the length of several stadiums, are constantly sifting beneath the sands of Arrakis, hunting for prey.

In Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, they’re one of the great marvels; impossible alien entities that embody just how unlike our known world this universe is. In Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction movie, they’re mysterious predators that threaten to consume anyone, or anything, that draws their attention.

When above ground, they’re an eyesore, their foreboding size topped by a gaping mouth. There’s no taming sandworms, but you can learn to share the planet with them in harmony, respecting and observing their presence. While we may not be Fremen, we have studied these massive worms like Paul Atreides, in the hopes of saving others from falling to their fate. You’re welcome!

What are sandworms?

These are gigantic animals that are among the few known species of wildlife on the barren sands of Arrakis. They live underground, burrowing through tunnels mere feet below the surface, casting sand in all directions in their wake. Their mouths are humongous gaping maws, protected by three flaps. Any overhead view will find some dotted around, evidenced by their trails. They’re apex predators – the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, mainly survive using strategies to avoid detection.

There is some co-existence, with the Fremen able to ride them to traverse the land. They do this by finding vulnerable spots on a sandworm’s harsh, dense skin that let them stab into the beast without hurting or maiming it too badly. Then it’s just a matter of holding on tightly until the next time the worm dives into the depths below.

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Sandworms can detect even the softest of rhythms from above, and they’ll move toward anything that makes enough sound or lays down enough pressure. The Fremen have a dance to cross large, flat spaces where regular walking or running would draw attention. Villeneuve’s movie makes a point of this several times, tying it into a theme of understanding different lands and acclimating to the demands of the local ecosystem.

How are sandworms made?

Dune: sandworms explained

It’s kind of icky. Some water exists on Arrakis way below the surface, and the smaller, leech-like sandtrout are drawn to it. When they find it, they merge with it and go into a semi-liquid state that boasts high Spice content. Chemical reactions during this metamorphosis force the Spice soup to be shot into the air above through the ground periodically.

Over thousands of years, the small number that survive bonded together grow into the mammoths you find on Arrakis. A theory within Dune canon posits that Arrakis used to have oceans and other masses of water, but someone introduced sandtrout, who consume high levels of hydration, and eventually the desert was all that’s left.

What do sandworms eat?

Sand, mostly, and other microorganisms. They’re somewhere between a dragon and a whale in terms of nearest reference points within nature and broader fiction. Whales due to the way they move around and consume by just sucking up food as they go, and dragons for their aggression and territorialism.

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Humans are actually poisonous, due to our high levels of water. Hydration kills sandworms, their metabolism acclimated to the harsh, dry Arrakeen environment. Yes, this does mean that the sandworm we see eat those Harkonnen soldiers in Villeneuve’s film is likely to emerge dead somewhere down the line, having had a long, painful demise. But that’s assuming the Blade Runner 2049 director is totally adhering to everything about the sandworms that’s in the books – we’ll have to wait for Dune 2 to find that out.