An article about mermaids appeared in the scientific journal Limnology and Oceanography in 1990. In it, respected biological oceanographer Karl Banse offered a tongue-in-cheek analysis of mermaid biology and lifestyle. Banse took known facts about aquatic life and extrapolated to theorize about mermaid characteristics [source: McClain].
In "Mermaids: Their Biology, Culture, and Demise," Banse suggests that there were once three species of mermaid, distinguished by their geographical locations. All would have been warm-water creatures, as they lacked the heavy blubber necessary to live in colder seas. The ones Columbus saw were the species Siren indica, who lived in the Atlantic Ocean.
Mermaids, says Banse, fed on the flesh of humans. It's worth noting, though, that a 1967 sighting off the coast of British Columbia had a mermaid eating salmon [source: Cameron]. In terms of physical build, Banse disagrees with the traditional depiction of the mermaid's tail as covered in smooth scales. Rather, he theorizes, mermaid tails had "horny skinfolds" similar to those of armadillos and anteaters.
Due to the presence of only two breasts, he surmised they gave birth to one or two young at a time. The paper leaves out the details of reproduction, though the lack of human genitalia seems to point to fish-like fertilization. We might look to Hindu myth for clues to the birthing process: The god Hanuman once had a child with Sovann Macha, the Golden Mermaid, and the child was expelled from the mermaid's throat.
So what happened to all these mermaids? Extinction, says Banse — mermaids were wiped out by a ballooning jellyfish population after humans overfished other marine life, destroying the ecological balance. Mermaids' thin skin offered no protection from jellyfish stings.
But clearly they're not extinct — at least judging by the multiple sightings in Kiryat Yam. Or the testimony of (fake scientist) Torsten Schmidt in "Mermaids: The New Evidence." Or the footage presented in Discovery's previous production, the hugely successful "Mermaids: The Body Found," which painted such a "wildly convincing picture" that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided to step in.
After fielding countless calls in the wake of the airing of "The Body Found," the NOAA released a statement, trying to clear up the issue this way: "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That's a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists" [source: Jspace].
Possibly. In the meantime, the $1 million reward for proof of the Mermaid of Kiryat Yam is still up for grabs.
Author's Note: How Mermaids Work
If you've ever tried to research a mythological creature, you know it's tough to come by much consensus. Every god has five backstories, every sighting 10 accounts, every explanation at least 12 interpretations. I tried to include here the information that seemed most agreed-upon or widely reported, but in many cases I had to settle for what was simply the most compelling. So just enjoy. Mermaids are good stuff.
- Bechler, Brad. "'Mermaids: The New Evidence' Recap: Extended Discovery Cut Stirs Debate." Examiner. Feb. 23, 2014. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.examiner.com/article/mermaids-the-new-evidence-recap-extended-discovery-cut-stirs-debate
- Bellincampi, Suzan. "Sirens of the Sea." Vineyard Gazette. Feb. 23, 2007. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1110&dat=20070223&id=uEYkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kvcFAAAAIBAJ&pg=470,5211924
- Boeni, Meg. "11 Famous Mermaids and Their Creators." Mental Floss. Sept. 11, 2013. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://mentalfloss.com/article/52673/11-famous-mermaids-and-their-creators
- Cameron, Daniel. "10 Credible Mermaid Sightings?" Epoch Times. Sept. 21, 2013. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/294466-10-credible-mermaid-sightings-videos/
- Cavendish, Richard. "Henry Hudson sails into Hudson Bay." History Today. 2010. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/henry-hudson-sails-hudson-bay
- Chu, Betty. "Everyone's Asking: Do Mermaids Really Exist? ...Well, Do They?" Animal Planet. June 1, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://blogs.discovery.com/bites-animal-planet/mermaids-the-body-found/
- Cryptomundo. "The Curious Case of the Orang Ikan." Oct. 26, 2012. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.mythicalcreatureslist.com/mythical-creature/Sovann+Macha
- DiBiasi, John. "Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." JesusFreakHideout. May 20, 2011. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.jesusfreakhideout.com/movies/PiratesoftheCaribbeanOnStrangerTides.asp
- Discovery Press. "Animal Planet's Mermaids: The Body Found Paints a Wildly Convincing Picture of the Existence of Mermaids, What They May Look Like and Why They've Stayed Hidden...Until Now." April 26, 2012. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://press.discovery.com/us/apl/press-releases/2012/animal-planets-mermaids-body-found-paints-wil-1903/
- Dor, Eti. "NBC: Kiryat Yam mermaid might be real." YNet News. May 4, 2010. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3883746,00.html
- Howell, Tom. "Captain John Smith and the mermaid." The Examiner. June 15, 2010. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.examiner.com/article/captain-john-smith-and-the-mermaid
- Jspace. "Has the Mermaid of Kiryat Yam Finally Been Caught on Tape?" June 3, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.jspace.com/news/articles/has-the-mermaid-of-kiryat-yam-finally-been-caught-on-tape/14232
- MarineBio Conservation Society. "Ocean Mysteries: The Mermaids: fact or fantasy?" (Oct. 18, 2014) http://marinebio.org/oceans/mysteries/#2
- McClain, Craig. "A (Not So Serious) Scientific Treatment of Mermaids." Deep Sea News. June 5, 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://deepseanews.com/2014/06/a-not-so-serious-scientific-treatment-of-mermaids/
- McGregor-Wood, Simon. "Photograph Israeli Mermaid, Win $1 Million." ABC News. Aug. 12, 2009. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/story?id=8310324
- McKie, Robin. "Big brains, no fur, sinuses... are these clues to our ancestors' lives as 'aquatic apes?" The Observer. April 27, 2013. (Oct. 20, 2014) http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/apr/27/aquatic-ape-theory-primate-evolution?guni=Article:in%20body%20link
- Mythical Creatures List. "Sovann Macha." (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.mythicalcreatureslist.com/mythical-creature/Sovann+Macha
- The New York Times. "Henry Hudson's Mermaid." Nov. 4, 1888. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C00E6D7173AEF33A25757C0A9679D94699FD7CF
- Quinn, Annalisa. "Book News: Author of Controversial 'Seduction Guide' Apologizes." NPR: The Two-Way. June 25, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/06/25/195454476/book-news-author-of-controversial-seduction-guide-apologizes
- Radford, Benjamin. "Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends." Live Science. Sept. 23, 2013. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/39882-mermaid.html
- Sea-thos. "Atargatis, the First Mermaid." Oct. 6, 2011. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.seathos.org/atargatis-the-first-mermaid/
- Shiffman, David. "No, Mermaids Aren't Real." Slate. May 30, 2013. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/mermaids_aren_t_real_animal_planet_s_fake_documentaries_misrepresent_ocean.html
- Shuker, Karl. "Mermaid Body Found? In Search of Folk With Fins." Shuker Nature. Aug. 1, 2012. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://karlshuker.blogspot.com/2012/08/mermaid-body-found-in-search-of-folk.html
- Siegel, Brian. "Water Spirits and Mermaids: The Copperbelt Case." Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.ecu.edu/african/sersas/siegel400.htm
- Stein, Harvey. "Israel's own 'Little Mermaid' in Kiryat Yam?" Israel 21. July 21, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.israel21c.org/culture/israels-own-little-mermaid-in-kiryat-yam/
- Stieber, Zachary. "Mermaids Are Real: Columbus, Shakespeare, and Pliny the Elder." Epoch Times. May 30, 2013. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/82540-mermaid-hoax-columbus-shakespeare-and-pliny-the-elder-say-mermaids-are-real/
- Stuckey, Johanna. "Atargatis, the 'Syrian Goddess.'" MatriFocus. 2009. (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.matrifocus.com/BEL09/spotlight.htm
- Theoi. "Triton." (Oct. 26, 2014) http://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Triton.html
- Turgeon, Carolyn. "Neither Fish Nor Flesh." The New Inquiry. Aug. 1, 2013. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/neither-fish-nor-flesh/
- Witcombe, Chris. "Water in Art: Mermaids & Sirens." Sweet Briar College. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://witcombe.sbc.edu/water/artmermaids.html
- Witcombe, Chris. "Waters of Change." Sweet Briar College. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://witcombe.sbc.edu/water/artwaterchange.html