June 5, 2023 5:49 pm

The myth of the mermaid has endured for centuries. In Ancient Syria, men and women worshipped Atargatis, a half-human, half-fish goddess who ruled more than fertility. Then in Ancient Greece, sailors would set out to sea in worry and lust of the siren, who, if offered the likelihood, would sing them to their deaths.

And of course, there is Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-Century fairy tale The Small Mermaid, which has been adapted by Disney however once more, this time in reside action. But how a lot truth is there in the myth? Does the concept of humanoid fish (or is it fishy humanoid?) have any legs? Or is it just fishful considering?

“First of all, we know that it is feasible to move about in a mermaid-style style,” says marine biologist Dr Helen Scales.

“People impersonate mermaids, and I’ve performed the equivalent, which is applying a mono-fin. In contrast to bi-fins, with a fin on every single foot, you place your feet with each other in 1 massive tail. It is a truly excellent way of propelling oneself about promptly.”

The dilemma, says Scales, is not necessarily with the fish element of the mermaid but with the human torso (at least, how it seems in The Small Mermaid), which has not evolved sufficient to survive for lengthy periods of time underwater.

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Why true-life mermaids would struggle to breathe

“My concern is respiration,” says Scales. “If they need to have to swim to the surface to take a breath, they would need to have to have anything much more akin to a blowhole than a nose and mouth. This is why crocodiles have their nostrils larger on their heads, so it is simpler for them to breathe on the surface.”

If mermaids have been to reside a solely aquatic life, on the other hand, they would either need to have gills (which they do not look to have) or, according to Scales, to have evolved some way of supplying themselves with oxygen.

“The anatomies of marine mammals are adapted to surviving in the ocean for lengthy stretches of time,” she says. “If a human diver goes underwater, their lungs halve in size just about every ten metres from the stress. Sperm whales have a specific rib cage to safeguard their lungs when this occurs.

“They also have a lot of myoglobin in their muscle tissues and in their blood, which has a a lot larger affinity for oxygen. A mermaid would have to have anything equivalent.”

There is also the reality that the human torso, with its gangly arms and intricate fingers, could possibly serve us nicely on land (they do, soon after all, enable us to make tools and consume pizza), but would place mermaids at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

“Arms are not specifically excellent for swimming, therefore why whales have evolved flippers,” says Scales. “When I utilized the mono-fin, you can truly really feel the drag of your arms.”

The classic teardrop shape of a fish is the most hydrodynamic, adds Scales. “If mermaids had a longer evolutionary history, I would say anything would have to take place to their arms,” she says.

“Unless, of course, there is some evolutionary purpose they have arms. There could be anything about their atmosphere that tends to make gathering meals a priority more than moving promptly!”

According to Scales, the mermaid’s mixture of human and marine anatomy eventually delivers the worst of each worlds, and it wouldn’t make a lot of a distinction if they have been reversed, with human legs on the bottom, and a fish head on best.

“The tail is a wonderful way to propel about,” she says. “But if they wanted to breathe, a fish front-half with gills would be really handy.”

But even then, how would either of their exposed human torso or flailing human legs deal with the icy cold of a winter ocean?

“They would need to have fairly thick blubber,” delivers Scales. “Either that, or they could go down the sea otter route and use fur.”

Coming quickly, to a cinema close to you: The Hairy Mermaid.

About our specialist, Dr Helen Scales

Dr Helen Scales is a marine biologist, broadcaster and science writer. She is the author of Spirals In Time and The Brilliant Abyss. Holding a Cambridge PhD in marine biology, Scales has logged much more than 300 hours underwater as a scuba diver. She has appeared on numerous BBC Radio four shows like The Life Scientific and The Museum Of Curiosity

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