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Sea Monkeys

When I heard featured scientist Len Zon say he feeds sea monkeys to the zebrafish he uses for cancer research, I knew I wanted to write something here about the sea monkey phenomenon I remembered from childhood. I was worried the subject was too trite compared to the important work Len does. Was it scientific enough? I decided that outside of their contribution to research biology, the sea monkey phenomenon is a part of popular culture. So, at the very least it’s social science.

Sea monkeys are a genetic variant of Artemia, crustaceans also known as brine shrimp. Their eggs are metabolically inactive and remain in a state of suspended animation for up to two years. Drop the eggs into the right environment, though, and they come to life!

Back in 1957, the same guy who invented X-ray glasses marketed these brine shrimp as a novelty pet he named sea monkeys. His ads in the back of magazines showed a mail-order kit with which any kid could produce lively little chimp-faced creatures who wore crowns and would swim around in their delightful aquatic kingdom. All you had to do was dump the little packet of “instant life” into pre-conditioned water. In just days you’d get tiny dots swimming around and eventually you’d get creatures about an inch long, guaranteed to live up to two years. But they didn’t look like monkeys.

I asked Facebook friends if they remembered sea monkeys:

“Yeah, I remember my mom flushing them down the toilet.”

“Ha! I sent away for some from the back of a comic book when I was a kid. Thought they were real neat ‘til my cousin poured all the food in the bowl and killed them.”

I asked what sea monkeys had meant to them, what thoughts the memory brought to mind:

“Memories? Fond memories of grief and deception!” one informant said.

Monkey Sea Monkey Do

“Deception! Was disappointed to learn that they weren’t really those wonderful little creatures as featured in the ads—you know, wearing wee little crowns, etc. I was five. I remember it vividly.”

“First con we experienced as children: They are not monkeys and they do not have crowns! I never trusted again! It was the first time I remember understanding that advertisers LIE.”

“I was fascinated by the ads in the Sunday funny pages. They always showed the sea monkeys dressed and with their little tails or seaweed covering their naughty parts. I wanted my own sea monkeys so bad so I could see them naked.”

Some memories were almost poignant: “Sea monkeys make me think of a childhood—my daughter’s—gone by.”

“I am now depressed [at being reminded of sea monkeys]. I thought I had pushed all memories of my mother refusing to let me have sea monkeys out of my mind. Now I feel the pain all over again.”

“My first memory was of disappointment after years of longing for them, thinking that if I owned them, they’d somehow make me special,” one person summed up. “It was the beginning of a lifetime of disappointment in products and the people behind them. I haven’t been right since!”

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.