June 8, 2018

Save the Merfolk

        Today is World Oceans Day, and we already got the celebration started with some Odd Fish a couple weeks ago, so today I have something even odder: merpeople.  The biology of merfolk has always been a bit of a puzzle.  How can a creature’s internal systems actually function if they’re half fish, half mammal, half cold-blooded, half warm-blooded, half water-breathing, half air-breathing?  But leaving such considerations aside for the moment, the important thing about merfolk is that they are intelligent beings who live in the world’s oceans and are entitled to some opinions about the state of the seas and how humans have been treating the water for the past few centuries.  Other intelligent sea creatures, such as dolphins and whales, of course, are also entitled to opinions, but presumably merfolk could actually tell us their opinions in clear and unambiguous speech.
        My first mermaid, combing her hair in the traditional manner, comes from “A Strange and Wonderful Relation of a Mermaid, that was seen and spoke with, on the Black Rock near Liverpool, by John Robinson Mariner, who was tossed on the Ocean for Six days and Nights; Together with the Conversation he had with her, and how he was preserved.”  From this account I learn something I did not know about mermaids: it is vital that you speak first.  As the account explains, “she appeared to him with a smiling Countenance and (by his Misfortune) she got the first word of him, so that he could not speak one Word, but was quite Dumb.”  Perhaps this is why we haven’t heard the merpeople’s opinions yet: we always get the first word.
         Next up, a really unusual mercouple.  They have large animal ears, for starters, and odd tufts on the undersides of their tails, but their strangest feature is the little web-footed legs.  These legs seem to add amphibian to the mammal-fish mix.  We know there must be many different species of merpeople, including an armless one here, and of course the double-tailed species made famous by Starbucks Coffee.  It may be that these legged merfolk are seen more often than we realize, if their legs are underwater when sailors usually spot them only from the waist up.
        Mermen get a lot less representation these days, so I’ve included a fifteenth century mergentleman who strikes me as looking rather scholarly.  I’d bet he could tell us a thing or two about plastic straws, helium balloons, oil spills, and the rest of the ocean trash.
        And finally a pair of mermaids wearing scales to the neck for modern notions of modesty.  A mother-daughter pair, perhaps?  Other than Andersen and Disney’s assurance that young merfolk go through a rebellious adolescent phase much like humans, we know very little about the life cycle of merpeople.  That’s all the more reason to take care of our oceans before we lose the chance to learn more about the wonderful creatures that live there.
        Okay, so maybe there aren’t mermaids living in the world’s oceans, so why have I picked them to celebrate World Ocean Day?  Well, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea how many more strange and incredible species remain undiscovered in the seas, but we know there are large, intelligent, beautiful creatures already in danger, and there are almost certainly creatures at least as wondrous as mermaids that we’ll never know about if we don’t ease up our abuse of the Earth.  So let’s Save the Mermaids and all their fellow sea creatures before it's too late.

[Pictures: Wonder of Wonders, wood block print from an 18th chapbook, recorded in Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Monstra Niliaca Parei, from Historiae animalium by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1570 edition (Images from University of Oklahoma);
Balena, wood block print from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Image from Internet Archive);
Iemanjá, wood block print by José Francisco Borges, c 2003 (Indigo Arts Gallery).]

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