How Mermaids Work

By: Julia Layton

Mermaid Science

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.

Related Articles


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