Monster of the Week: Medusa

Harryhausen's Medusa from 'Clash of the Titans.' Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Ah, what are we to make of Medusa? The gorgon of Greek myth boasted a number of impressive, monstrous features including sharp tusks, claws, a head full of vipers and a petrifying gaze. Surely such an outrageous creature has no place among the organisms of the natural world, right?

But of course we've all encountered such gorgons before, though we usually fail to identify the killer in our midst since the actual monster differs somewhat from the version we saw in "Clash of the Titans." Let's start with the snake hair.

One might be tempted to assume some form of mimicry (perhaps the illusion of coiled snakes deterred attackers or attracted hawks) but why would such a fearsome predatory monster need such an adaptation? The appendages, coiled among more human-looking locks of hair, are of course tentacles. Oh yes, vertebrates get in on the action -- just take a look at the tentacled snake of Southeast Asia or the star-nosed mole of North America.

The mole is key to understanding the Medusa. We're talking an array of 22 tentacles, each with 25,000 touch receptors to provide the best sense of touch of any mammal. Plus they're especially helpful in the mole's subterranean worm hunts. The Medusa uses its serpentine appendages for similar purposes, whether hunting down mercenaries in its subterranean lair or preying on revelers in a dark, crowded club.

As for the Medusa's petrifying gaze, it merely hypnotizes its prey with pulsating colors rather than turning anyone into an impossible block of stone. The cuttlefish uses just such a tactic , manipulating the chromatophores in its flesh to dazzle the intended prey long enough to snatch it up.

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.

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.