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The Right Chemistry: Monkeying around with 'Sea-Monkeys'

By the time brine shrimp came to von Braunhut’s attention in 1957, they had long been raised as food for fish, but the inventor saw something else in these eggs that could easily be shipped in their dry state and be brought to life with water.

Back in the 1960s, I was a big fan of comic books, especially Superman. The back page often featured an ad promising that for just $1.25 one could “own a bowlful of happiness, filled with frolicsome swimming pets that are always clowning around, performing stunts and playing games with each other.”

The seductive ads promised entry into “the wonderful world of amazing live Sea-Monkeys” with the “monkeys” pictured in their underwater environment sporting broad smiles and human-like features, except for their long monkey-like tails. What the mail carrier actually delivered was a small package of disappointment.

The package contained three numbered envelopes. The contents of the first were to be dissolved in water to remove some of the minerals that make water “hard.” Then, the water would be ready to receive the contents of the second envelope. This contained the “Sea-Monkeys,” which were actually the tiny eggs of brine shrimp in an anhydrobiotic state. “Anhydrobiotic” derives from the Greek for “life without water,” and describes a state in which all metabolic processes have stopped due to dehydration, but can be restored when water is made available.

Customers were instructed to dump the contents of the envelope into a container of water and wait for the Sea-Monkeys to spring to life. Soon they would soon see the “most adorable pets ever to bring smiles, laughter and fun into your home!” Not quite.

What they actually saw was the emergence of tiny crustaceans of the genus Artemia, some up to 10 millimetres long. They did move around, but there was no action that could be interpreted as “cavorting” and in no way did the shrimp resemble the cute creatures depicted in the ads.

A third envelope contained a powder that was to be added to the water to nurture the little “monkeys.” It was a mixture of salt, an obvious requirement for “brine shrimp,” and food in the form of some microscopic algae and yeast.

Sea-Monkeys were the brainchild of Harold von Braunhut (1926-2003), a quirky inventor who also introduced “invisible goldfish” with a 100 per cent guarantee that they would never be seen. In this case, the fish did indeed live up to the claim of being invisible. Another von Braunhut brainchild, “X-Ray Specs,” promised to allow the wearer to see through opaque materials, enticing many a young boy with visions of getting a secret glimpse through clothing. Not a chance.

By the time brine shrimp came to von Braunhut’s attention in 1957, they had long been raised as food for fish, but the inventor saw something else in these eggs that could easily be shipped in their dry state and be brought to life with water. What he saw was a scheme to sell “Instant-Life,” apparently prompted by memories of flea circuses where “people would willingly believe in talented fleas that obviously didn’t exist. In 1960, he began to place ads in comics, but there wasn’t much interest. And then came the brilliant idea of rechristening the little creatures that hatched from the eggs as “Sea-Monkeys” and portraying them as charming humanoids. Orders flooded in, making von Braunhut a rich man. 

Sea-Monkey ads were a regular feature in comics until the 1980s, when a couple of major distributors suddenly quit the business as a result of a bizarre revelation about von Braunhut. An article in the Washington Post claimed that von Braunhut was involved with “some of the most extreme racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country,” citing the Aryan Nations as an example. What made this story really weird, was that Harold Nathan Braunhut was born Jewish and only added the “von” to his name at the age of 24 to make it sound more Germanic.

While brine shrimp have great commercial use as feed for fish in aquaculture, and are still available as “Sea-Monkeys,” they do have another use. The little creatures can serve as a model organism for toxicity testing, since they can be raised in large numbers and exposed to suspect chemicals. The extent of their survival provides an assessment of the toxicity on the chemicals in question. Shrimp eggs have even travelled into space to test the effects of cosmic radiation on life. Aboard both Apollo 16 and 17, they journeyed to the moon and returned to Earth, where they were then placed in salt water and their hatching rate compared with eggs that had been kept on the ground but vibrated mechanically to mimic the effects of a rocket ride. The space travellers had a much lower rate of hatching, demonstrating the dangers of exposure to cosmic radiation, something that is of concern to human astronauts on long voyages such as a trip to Mars.

Sea-Monkeys basically amount to a novelty item wrapped up in humbug. Nevertheless, they can serve as an interesting educational tool to demonstrate the importance of making observations and coming to conclusions. Let students place the eggs, which have the appearance of just being dirt, in water, and encourage them to make observations to see if they can conclude what is happening. They can then vary conditions and gain a sensitivity about the complexity of living organisms and the conditions under which they can survive. Moreover, the experiments are completely safe. Even if somehow the eggs end up in students’ mouths, nothing will happen. The brine shrimp eggs will not hatch; they will just be digested as any other food. You can actually learn a lot by monkeying around with Sea-Monkeys.

I was never really enticed by the comic book ads when I was young, but now after exploring their history I decided a purchase was in order. No longer $1.25, but still not expensive. The little “monkeys” didn’t quite live up to the claim in the original ads that “you will never get tired of watching them.” Actually, about 30 seconds was quite enough.

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