A Short History of Sea-Monkeys

From Comic-Book Advertisements to Cryptobiotic Artemia


Sea-monkeys advert 2
A mail-order advertisement for sea-monkeys that appeared in numerous American children’s comic-books during the early 1970s – click picture to enlarge it for reading the advert (© Transcience Corporation)

As a child during the late 1960s and early 1970s, living in England, I enthusiastically supplemented my already-extensive reading of British comics with any American comic-books that I could find, especially ones published by Gold Key or Charlton that featured popular television cartoon characters from that time period. Moreover, browsing through them I not only enjoyed the comic strip stories themselves but also never failed to be equally captivated as well as wholly confused and thoroughly tormented in equal measure by a certain mail-order advertisement (reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article) that these comic-books frequently contained – captivated by the extraordinary entities that this advertisement offered for sale, yet confused by what seemed to be a self-evident fact that such entities couldn’t possibly exist, and tormented because, as the comic-books were American and the mail-order advertisement required pre-payment in US dollars only ($1 plus 30c p&p), to be sent to an address in New York, USA, I couldn’t readily purchase any of these entities directly myself and thence discover their true nature. I still retain a representative selection of those comic-books from my childhood, and perusing some of them recently I was delighted to discover no fewer than three that actually contained this particular advertisement. Two of them were Tom and Jerry comic-books published by Gold Key, the issues in question being August 1972 (#265) and August 1973 (#273) respectively; the third was the November 1971 issue (#72) of Gold Key’s Daffy Duck/The Road Runner comic-book.

Me holding sea monkeys advert in Gold KeyTom and Jerry comic book, August 1972 issue, 1a
Holding my August 1972 issue of Gold Key’s Tom and Jerry comic-book open at the page containing the sea-monkeys advertisement – click picture to enlarge it for viewing the sea-monkeys advert in close-up detail (© Dr Karl Shuker/Gold Key/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc/Transcience Corporation)

As can be seen from this advertisement, the entities in question were referred to as sea-monkeys, and were depicted, astonishingly, as a family (father, mother, daughter, and young son) of tiny underwater-inhabiting humanoid beings, but sporting a long finned tail, normal fingered hands yet wholly webbed feet, three bauble-tipped spikes on top of their heads resembling a crown but seemingly constituting a physical part of their skull, a heavily-scaled chest in both male and female, plus a ridged back recalling that of a seahorse. But that was not all. According to the advertisement, these incredible sea-monkeys hatched from eggs and came to life instantly when placed in water, and could even be trained to play games. Yet they allegedly required hardly any food or general maintenance, even keeping their water clean without any outside assistance. As someone with a veritable library of wildlife books readily to hand even as a child, bought for me with great love over the years by my mother, my grandparents (my mother’s parents), and my great-aunt, and whose precious information I’d hungrily devoured through time and constant re-reading in my relentless quest for ever more knowledge concerning animals (especially the more unusual ones), I was only too well aware that sea-monkeys did not feature in any of them, not by as much as a single sentence. (And because all of this took place many years before the internet was born, the world of instantly-accessible, near-infinite quantities of information that we all inhabit today – and which would surely have yielded the necessary details to solve the sea-monkey conundrum swiftly and conclusively – was nothing more than a sci-fi dream of the far-distant future back then.) So what on earth – or, more precisely, under the water – were these astonishing aquatic beings, these so-called sea-monkeys? How could they be explained? Various options came to mind.

Sea-monkeys advert 2, close-up
Close-up of the sea-monkeys as portrayed in an early 1970s mail-order advertisement (© Transcience Corporation)

For instance: might it be possible, I wondered, that the entire super-monkey scenario was simply a hoax – perhaps an ingenious means of enticing naïve and credulous youngsters reading the sea-monkey mail-order advertisement in their comic-books to send off money in the hope of purchasing miraculous little beings that in reality didn’t exist, meaning therefore that the youngsters never received any sea-monkeys nor saw their money again either? Or could it be some form of highly imaginative publicity campaign for an entirely different product, but, if so, what might that product be? I even pondered over the prospect that perhaps sea-monkeys were indeed real but constituted a novel life-form that had somehow been created artificially by scientists (having said that, please bear in mind that I was still only a child back then, and one with a very vivid imagination to boot!). It took several years, but during the mid-1970s I finally discovered the answer to the riddle of the sea-monkeys, an answer so long awaited by me. One day, I happened to spot in an American comic-book a version of the sea-monkey advertisement that I had never seen before. True, the image of the sea-monkeys was exactly the same as before, and the details concerning them were much the same too (albeit slightly reworded and presented in a somewhat different layout, and also incorporating a minor increase in required pre-payment for the sea-monkeys, from $1 to $1.25, plus 50c p&p). But what made this particular version of the advertisement so significant to me was that it contained a small yet very telling amendment. As can be seen below in the following reproduction of this amended advertisement, a brief disclaimer was present in small print along the bottom edge of the advert, which read: “Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia“. With those fateful words, the mystery that (at least for me) had long surrounded the sea-monkeys was instantly and comprehensively dispersed – the cat was finally out of the bag, or, to quote a more zoologically apt metaphor, the shrimps were finally in the net!

Sea-monkeys advert 4
A 1976 comic-book advertisement for sea-monkeys that included a disclaimer which provided an answer to the riddle of these perplexing beings’ true nature – click picture to enlarge it for reading the advert (© Transcience Corporation)

For not only had the advertisement’s whimsical sea-monkey illustrations been exposed by the disclaimer as being merely caricatures rather than accurate representations of these entities’ true appearance, the sea-monkeys themselves had been unmasked, having been shown not to be entities in any humanoid sense of the word. Instead, as unequivocally identified in the disclaimer, they were Artemia – i.e. brine shrimps! Veritable living fossils inasmuch as they differ very little in overall morphology from their Triassic ancestors dating back in the fossil record to over 200 million years ago, brine shrimps inhabit inland saltwater lakes (but not marine habitats) and are of worldwide distribution. Measuring little more than 1 cm in total length (females are slightly larger than males), and often pink in colour, they consist of eight separate species all housed within the single genus Artemia (of which the most familiar is A. salina), and belong to the taxonomic class of crustaceans known as branchiopods. These also include among their numbers those fellow living fossils the tadpole shrimps Triops and Lepidurus, as well as the water fleas (e.g. Daphnia), fairy shrimps, and clam shrimps. Brine shrimps possess a typical primitive crustacean body design, composed of head, thorax, and a lengthy slender abdomen (often colloquially termed the tail), the body itself usually consisting of 19 segments, of which the first eleven (constituting the thorax) each bears a pair of broad leaf-like limbs. In addition, the long abdominal section (‘tail’) sports at its tip a pair of slender, vaguely fin-like structures called furcae. The head bears a pair of large laterally-sited compound eyes on stalks, plus a third medial eye that is the only eye present in brine shrimp larvae (nauplii). It also possesses two pairs of antennae (in the male, the second pair is modified into greatly-enlarged clasping organs for gripping the female during mating), and three pairs of jawparts (mandibles, maxillulae, and maxillae).

Brine shrimp Artemia salina, 1800s engraving
19th-Century engraving of an adult male Artemia salina brine shrimp, revealing the composition of its body and also showing its greatly-enlarged claspers, modified from its second pair of antennae (public domain)

Yet despite the fact that, fin-bearing ‘tail’ notwithstanding, brine shrimps clearly look nothing whatsoever like the advertisement’s delightful yet entirely fanciful sea-monkey illustrations that depict the latter entities as underwater finned humanoids, these small crustaceans do share one major, fundamental similarity with the sea-monkeys as described in this advert. Under normal conditions, adult female brine shrimps ovulate every 140 hours, and their eggs hatch almost instantly when placed into water with favourable salinity levels (25-250 g/l, with 60-100 g/l being the optimal range, brine shrimps being able to withstand much higher salinity concentrations than most other animals). This activity validates the sea-monkey advertisement’s claim that the latter’s eggs will hatch as soon as placed in water – in other words, instant life (which was the original name given to sea-monkeys before their simian moniker was dreamed up – see later in this article). But that is not all. If confronted by unfavourable salinity levels, female brine shrimps will not produce normal eggs but will instead produce metabolically-inactive ones known as cysts, which are coated externally with a protective brown-coloured covering of chorion, enabling them to remain dormant for up to 2 years, even when exposed to such extreme conditions as immersion in liquid air at temperatures as low as -190°C, or in boiling water for up to 2 hours. This ability to remain in suspended animation for a prolonged period of time is known as cryptobiosis. Once placed in favourable surroundings, however, the cysts will hatch within a few hours. Needless to say, such hardy, virtually indestructible creatures that are so easily reared make ideal pets for young children who possess little if any practical pet-keeping experience – a simple truth that ultimately inspired the whole sea-monkey concept.

Brine shrimp cyst, public domain
A brine shrimp cyst, in which this crustacean undergoes an extended period of suspended animation or cryptobiosis (public domain)

In addition, brine shrimps are extremely active, energetic swimmers, another characteristic guaranteed to engage and hold the attention of youngsters. Indeed, in his famous three-volume Illustrated Natural History published in 1863, the Reverend J.G. Wood included a paragraph that perfectly captures the very lively, animated behaviour of brine shrimps, readily explaining their continuing popularity as pets for children: “The movements of this little creature are most graceful. It mostly swims on its back, its feet being in constant motion, and its course directed by means of its long tail. It revolves in the water, bends itself into varied curves, turns fairly over, wheels to the right or left, and seems thoroughly to enjoy the very fact of existence.” As for being trainable: brine shrimps are actively attracted to light, swimming towards it, so if a narrow beam is shone from a torch into a large tank or aquarium containing sea-monkeys, and then moved around inside it, they will follow the beam’s movements. Yet even after I finally discovered during the mid-1970s that sea-monkeys were brine shrimps, additional details concerning the sea-monkey scenario remained undisclosed to me for many years – until the internet’s vast resources of online information presented me at long last with the history and background behind these most unexpected yet exceedingly popular pets, and which I am now summarising as follows.

Brine shrimp 'sea-monkeys' in an aquarium, public domain
Brine shrimp ‘sea-monkeys’ swimming in an aquarium (public domain)

Long before the advent of sea-monkeys, brine shrimp were (and still are) popularly sold as pet food by pet shops, and in 1957, after reputedly encountering some brine shrimp in a pet shop , Harold von Braunhut came up with the idea of using them as ‘instant life’ – believing (correctly, as it turned out) that the spectacle of brine shrimps instantly hatching and swimming around in an aquarium when their eggs were added to water would prove popular among children. After developing a special mix of compounds, with the assistance of microcrustacean expert Dr Anthony D’Agostino, that would incite this dramatic reaction when brine shrimp eggs were dropped into tap water (tap water normally being far less salty than the water normally inhabited by these crustaceans), von Braunhut began marketing brine shrimps as pets during the early 1960s under the name ‘Instant Life’. However, in 1964 he changed this to the more intriguing, curiosity-inciting ‘Sea-Monkeys’ moniker, the shrimps’ long tails supposedly reminding him of monkeys’ tails. Moreover, these brine shrimps were not just any old brine shrimps. Von Braunhut and D’Agostino had previously spent a considerable time engineering via cross-breeding methods a new, special variety of brine shrimp that was not found in nature but which lived longer, grew larger, and was physically tougher than those that were. Eventually they achieved success, creating a very sturdy hybrid that they formally dubbed Artemia NYOS (NYOS referring to the New York Oceanic Society’s Montor, Long Island, laboratory where it was developed). The classic sea-monkey was born! Unfortunately, brine shrimps (hybrid or otherwise) are not the most alluring of creatures in basic appearance, so von Braunhut soon hired acclaimed comic-book artist Joe Orlando to depict them as the irresistibly charming mini-humanoids with fins and tails that have been synonymous with the sea-monkey name ever since. Yet another highly ingenious, ultra-successful idea conceived early on by von Braunhut was to sell sea-monkeys via mail-order using Orlando-illustrated advertisements placed in countless American children’s comic-books year after year, beginning in 1962 – thereby directly and intensively targeting their prime purchasers, American children. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sea-monkey and brine shrimp
Sea-monkey and brine shrimp (illustration copyright holder unknown to me)

Harold von Braunhut died in 2003, but his legacy lives on, with the sea-monkey pet industry that he founded over 50 years ago remaining just as popular today as it ever was, selling not only sea-monkeys themselves (in their billions since 1957) but also a vast, highly diverse collection of accessories – everything from the Sea-Monkey Ocean Zoo, the Sea-Monkey Circus, and the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway to fully-functional watches containing sea-monkeys swimming around inside their dials. Sea-monkeys have also appeared in many top-rated television shows, including The Simpsons, South Park, American Dad, Desperate Housewives, and Roseanne. In 1992, they even inspired an 11-episode television series of their own entitled The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys, featuring actors as human-sized sea-monkeys; as well as a video game, The Amazing Virtual Sea-Monkeys, released during the early 2000s. In 2012, celebrated American poet Campbell McGrath published a book of poems entitled In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, which contained one poem about living in the sea-monkey kingdom depicted by Orlando in the sea-monkey advertisements (my thanks to Facebook colleague John Callahan for this info). And over 400 million sea-monkeys were sent up into space with American astronaut John Glenn for nine days back in 1998, for any effects upon these tiny creatures’ eggs resulting from exposure to radiation, weightlessness, and gravitational force upon re-entry to be studied. Eight weeks after their return to Earth, however, the eggs hatched normally and yielded apparently normal brine shrimps too, having been seemingly unaffected, therefore, by their extraterrestrial experience.

Sea-monkeys starter pack, mine
My still-unopened sea-monkey ‘starter pack’ (© Dr Karl Shuker/Transcience Corporation)

Finally: although the breadth of the vast Atlantic Ocean, a conflict of currencies, and a distinct lack of financial expertise on my part as a child in 1970s England all originally stifled my desire to purchase some sea-monkeys from their American source as given in the comic-book advertisements, several years ago I was delighted to discover that these illusive creatures could now be purchased directly in England. Consequently, I soon bought an all-in-one sea-monkey ‘starter pack’ – containing sea-monkey eggs, nutrients, water purifier, magnifier, and even a feeding spoon – but I have never even opened it, let alone got around to ‘growing’ and nurturing any of these animals in an aquarium. Why not? I suppose the answer is that because I now know exactly what sea-monkeys are (nothing more than brine shrimps), and what they are not (incredible underwater mini-humanoids with fins!), the magic that formerly surrounded them has gone.

Sometimes, just as English poet Thomas Gray so succinctly expressed it way back in 1742: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”.  


(© Dr Karl Shuker/Gold Key/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc/Transcience Corporation)

One comment

  1. Kelly

    Thank you for your very informative and enjoyable article! As a child who loved comic books in the 1970s, I always hoped to get some Sea Monkeys. When grown and with a biology degree, I purchased brine shrimp for my young niece and we watched them grow to be just large enough to see, sans the dancing and fun family communities that were previously advertised. Your ending statement by Thomas Gray was the perfect closure. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *