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Throughout the course of human evolution there have been several species belonging to the genus Homo, including neanderthalensis, erectus, habilis, and floresiensis. Today only two remain: Homo sapiens  and Homo oceanus. We, of course, belong to the former species. Unlike us, H. oceanus are strictly marine-dwelling primates.

Mermaids were once thought to be mythical creatures, invented in the minds of lonely sailors who had spent way too much time at sea. For years their elusive nature kept them from being photographed or witnessed by credible scientists and their high intelligence enabled them to avoid the nets of both researchers and fishermen. The evidence that these humans existed wouldn’t be found until the year 1949, when an aged specimen was trawled from the depths. Unfortunately she died shortly after landing but the photographic proof is irrefutable, as you can see in the rare photo beneath the fold:

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In life, most mermaids are much more
attractive than this specimen.

The basic mermaid characteristics are pretty standard throughout the species, although there are some deviations regarding hair color. While the archetypal specimen has long, flowing blonde cranial hair (typically growing to waist-length and always covering and protecting the mammaries from the chilly North Atlantic waters) there are several known examples of red and brunette color morphs (see Bigelow and Bailey, 1929).

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An artist’s rendition of a rare
red-headed color morph of H. oceanus.

Mermaids grow to a length of about five and half feet and a top weight of 125 pounds. The life span is about 30 years. This short longevity is attributed to the rapid heart rate, triple our own, needed to circulate the thick, heavily-leukocytic blood and maintain the high body temperature needed to sustain itself in its coldwater habitat. Because they lack the waterproof fur of animals such as polar bears, or the blubber that allow seals to survive New England winters, this heat-producing circulatory mechanism can be enhanced by migration into warmer waters during the winter, a behavior that some mermaids have developed, and which interestingly enough may extend their life span by a decade or more. Based on what scant demographic data exists, it appears that older mermaids are especially more likely to head south towards Florida and the Gulf of Mexico during the colder months.

The most unusual adaptation found in H. oceanus is the departure from the typical higher primate’s bipediality. Structurally there are still two legs (including a pair of femurs, tibias and fibulas) but these have become fused into a single extremity encased in a thick scale-covered skin. The feet have been replaced by a caudal fin which is responsible for propelling her through the water. Unlike fish, whose caudal fins are vertical (and move horizontally), the mermaid’s tail fin, like other marine mammals, is horizontal and moves up and down when swimming. As with whales and dolphins this tail structure is more accurately referred to as a "fluke".

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In this misleading bit of artwork, the artist
depicts the caudal scales in the color yellow.
All mermaids have green scales.

The mysterious nature of the sea has provided fodder for the creation of many myths over the centuries including, sea monsters, prehistoric creatures hiding in deep Scottish lakes, krakens and mermen. All of these are, of course, ridiculous fantasies. Everyone knows that krakens don’t exist, there is no sea monster hiding in the depths of the Loch Ness and there are no mermen living in the North Atlantic. We know this last fact because mermaids reproduce solely via parthenogenesis. This is the process whereby an egg develops without fertilization by a male, and all parthenogenic births in turn give rise only to female offspring. Like Flora, the komodo dragon, mermaids don’t need no men.

Mermaids ovulate once a year (normally in the early spring), producing a single egg which migrates from the fallopian tube into the naval duct, moved along by thousands of abdominal cilia towards the naval wall. This gelatinous egg is held in the naval pouch for about three months. When the young, known as a "merchild", hatches it stays with the mother until late fall. After learning how to capture prey and fend for herself, the merchild leaves the mother and searches for a suitable habitat to live out  her life.

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A mermaid’s preferred habitat is protected coves
or north-facing coastlines, ideally with suitable
exposed sun-bathing rocks which this primate
uses to bask on warm days.

One mistaken belief about mermaids is that they can sometimes beach themselves and turn their lower torso and caudal area into limbs adapted for terrestrial movement. This is a myth that has been frustratingly perpetuated by Walt Disney Pictures and Darryl Hannah. A mermaid can no more will herself legs as you could jump from a cliff and will yourself wings. It simply can’t be done.

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Hollywood’s depiction of a mermaid
having transmutated H. sapiens-like
lower extremities.

Mermaids are among earth’s most endangered species. A combination of habitat loss, small annual brood size (one) and pollution (particularly heavy metals, which concentrate in the seaweeds they graze on and the fish they hunt) have greatly reduced the mermaid’s numbers. It is believed that fewer than a hundred now exist, down from an estimated 24,000 during the days of Hans Christian Anderson.

Learn more about mermaids here.

Other diaries in this series can be found here.

Originally posted to Mark H on Sat Mar 31, 2007 at 11:09 PM PDT.

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