March 27, 2008


Stupid Question ™
Dec. 14, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: What ever happened to Sea-Monkeys, and just what the heck were they anyway?
—Suzan Thoma

A: A staple of comic book ads, Sea-Monkeys promised to give children total dominion over a kingdom of tiny sea creatures, usually depicted as human/fish hybrids with three stalks rising crown-like from their heads. By mixing three packets of gunk (“Water Purifier,” “Sea-Monkey Eggs” and “Growth Food”) with water, kids were instead treated to near-microscopic dots that may or may not have been alive.

Sea-Monkeys were the brainchild of Harold von Braunhut, who also invented X-Ray Specs. Exactly 40 years after their introduction, Sea-Monkeys are still being sold through von Braunhut’s Maryland-based Transcience Corporation.

The Sea-Monkey market hit a slump in the mid-’90s, when distributor ExploraToy started marketing them as an “educational” toy.

Back when I was a kid, rumors ran rampant about what Sea-Monkeys were, from bits of inert matter to a “flea circus”-style illusion. But with this new “educational” angle, von Braunhut et al. readily reveal that Sea-Monkeys are in fact brine shrimp.

First discovered in the salt ponds of Lymington, England in 1755, brine shrimp are tiny crustaceans (rarely more than half an inch long) that live in highly saline water.

Despite the “shrimp” moniker, they’re not closely related to shrimp; despite the “Sea-Monkey” moniker, they don’t live in the open sea. They thrive in salt lakes and bays. (More than 30 companies harvest them from Utah’s Great Salt Lake alone.) They have compound eyes on projecting stalks, tapered bodies and 11 pairs of legs; under a lens, they look something like silverfish.

Brine shrimp are survivors. In good conditions, they give birth to live young. But in bad conditions, they lay eggs encased in a tough coating called a cyst. These cysts can withstand extreme temperatures, and will survive complete drying out for dozens of years. But add a little warm salt water, and the young (“Baby Sea-Monkeys”) quickly hatch in perfect condition.

Sea-Monkeys are a special long-lived breed of brine shrimp, and what active lives they are. They may face the Aqua-Leash (a suction device for picking up Sea-Monkeys), Cupid’s-Arrow Mating Powder or the Sea-Monkey Speedway.

The speedway is a race course exploiting the fact that if you create a current in water, brine shrimp instinctively swim against it. Ohio State University hosted a Sea-Monkey race in 1999.

There are also watches and necklaces containing Sea-Monkeys, as well as a space shuttle-shaped aquarium to commemorate Sea-Monkeys going into space on the same mission as John Glenn. (Brine shrimp already went up the US Apollo and the Soviet Cosmos programs.)

Von Braunhut originally sold Sea-Monkeys under the creepy name “Instant Life,” and has faced complaints that it’s unethical to sell animals as toys. However, it might be better than the most common commercial use of brine shrimp: live fish food.

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