Monster of the Week: Gelatinous Cube

Cubed again! Art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu

Dungeons are dangerous. You know this because, like me, you grew up under a constant bombardment of parental warnings.

"Never look into all four eyes of an Umberhulk," they warned us, and "Don't run or you might sprint right into a cube of flesh-eating goo."

Gelatinous cubes are of course giant amoeboids, not unlike the corrosive blobs encountered in North America. But unlike their amorphous brethren, these deadly slimes evolved over numerous generations to thrive in the artificial environments of subterranean halls and passageways.

Unlike the many aggressive predators known to haunt these dark places, the cube takes a rather passive approach to its feeding. It simply slides through the tunnels till an otherwise distracted adventurer or dungeon denizen runs into it.

Aside from asexual cube-budding, that's pretty much all there is to the G-cube lifestyle -- but don't mistake mindlessness for stupidity. In the natural world, slime molds have proven experts at maze navigation, despite having no real brain to speak of.

And don't scoff at the notion of evolution inside a man-made environment. Like its smaller relatives, the cube is likely short lived and therefore quite capable of rapid adaptation. After all, scientists have observed "evolution in action" in controlled populations of E. coli.

Heck, the E. coli long-term evolution experiment has seen more than 50,000 generations pass by in just 25 years since 1988. Gelatinous cube generations are likely longer, but consider the age of the subterranean tunnels they may occupy. The New York Subway system dates back to 1904 while the London Underground dates back to 1863. Other frequented subterranean spaces, such as the Catacombs of Paris, date back centuries.

And if we're to consider dungeons of the unnatural world too, then the Underdark of Greyhawk is considerably more ancient than the surface world above. No wonder such strange and dangerous things evolved there.

So think about that the next time you notice the bones and armor of a digested adventurer afloat in the hallway ahead.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens of our monster-haunted world. In some of these, we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Other times, we"ll just wax philosophic about the monster's underlying meaning. After all, the word "monstrosity" originates from the Latin monstrare, which meant to show or illustrate a point.

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.