A glimmer of fish scales.
A splash from a colorful fin.
The echo of a mysterious song across the water.
Few mythical creatures are more instantly recognizable and yet more mysterious than mermaids. Whether seen perched on a rock at the water’s edge or spied only as a dim outline beneath the waves, mermaids have long fascinated sailors, scientists, storytellers, and surprised onlookers alike.
But how can one spot a mermaid? What are the clues that mermaids might live in a certain body of water? How do mermaids in one kind of habitat differ from others? Do mermaids only exist in huge expanses of open water, or could there be mermaids in the tiny creek or pond near you? This book aims to help you examine aquatic habitats with a careful eye to find signs of mermaid activity and think about what kinds of mermaids they might be.
HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE
Mermaids exist in all kinds of water and have many different adaptations to survive in their particular environment. This guide breaks down these habitat types into sections and discusses the characteristics of the mermaids in each one. Questions at the beginning of each section will get you started in your exploration of the illustrations on each page, as well as the real aquatic habitats you find in nature.
WHAT IS A MERMAID?
A mermaid is a living being that has the torso, arms, and head of a human and the tail and fins of a fish or, in some cases, a marine mammal such as a whale or manatee. Most can breathe both above and below water, while some are permanently aquatic and never venture above the surface. Those that spend time out of the water must remain damp to survive, which they accomplish through a variety of adaptations and learned behaviors. Mermaids are among the most powerful swimmers in any aquatic habitat, and they can even crawl over land for short distances to seek out new bodies of water. While there are some that are tolerant of pollution, most mermaids require clean water to survive.
HOW DO MERMAIDS BREATHE?
Mermaids are born with external gills that let them absorb oxygen from the water. Then they go through a metamorphosis when the gills disappear, and they develop lungs. These allow them to breathe above water, but unlike marine mammals, they don’t have to surface for air. Instead, they absorb oxygen from the water through their skin, like a newt.
Mermaids are capable of their own speech and are thought by most scientists to be as intelligent as humans, though they are generally wary of people. Their songs are known to be incredibly complex. Many mermaids have built amazing homes, villages, and even cities underwater that rival any architecture on land.
Mermaids aren’t only female. The collective term is merfolk, but in this book we will be using the word mermaid throughout. No matter their gender, merfolk usually mimic the patterns and coloring of native fish in their habitats, and they all tend to share a similar love for eye-catching jewelry.
THE MERMAID LIFE CYCLE
Mermaids give birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. These babies are called naiads and begin life completely aquatic, with webbed hands and frilly external gills. Despite these amphibian-like characteristics, they nurse from their mothers like mammals and spend most of their time snuggled against their mothers or learning to swim.
As naiads age, their hands become less webbed and their gills disappear. Their lungs develop, which means they can begin making their first trips to the surface.
Mermaids can be classified in one of two ways. Because mermaid adaptations are so tied to their homes, one of the easiest ways to categorize mermaids is by habitat. This is a handy way to identify mermaids that may have different colors or patterns and yet share the same range. For example, a mermaid mimicking a sauger and one mimicking a smallmouth bass, both found in the Ohio River, could each be referred to as a river mermaid.
To get more specific, mermaids can also be referred to by the type of aquatic animal they mimic, such as referring to a tuna mermaid or a dolphin mermaid. Mimicking the colors, patterns, and adaptations of other animals in their habitats assists with camouflage, obtaining food, scaring away predators, and communicating with other mermaids. An easy way to identify mermaids in your area is to look up your native fish, amphibians, and aquatic mammals and determine what animals a local mermaid might mimic!
Most of the mermaid species in this book are depicted with the animal they mimic in the same illustration.
Mermaids eat a variety of things depending on their habitat. Most are omnivorous, eating both plants and meat, though some tend to eat more of one or the other. A mermaid in a forested swamp, for example, would have plenty of vegetable life to choose from, while a mermaid in an icy sea would rely more on fish and other creatures.
In general, mermaids can live in any water source a fish can. They can be found in salt water, fresh water, and brackish water, and they are adapted to a wide variety of environments, from muddy swamps to the open ocean. Some prefer deep water, where they almost never see the surface, while others are happy in water so shallow it merely keeps them damp. However, in almost all cases, mermaids require clean water. They don’t tolerate pollution well and have been known to abandon streams or coastal areas with high levels of toxins or debris.
In some instances, mermaids have been known to leave a water source and scoot or crawl to another one. This puts them at risk for drying out—plus it’s hard work! Nevertheless, some mermaids have been found in isolated pools or lakes they could only have crawled to. Possibly the most famous example is the Pacific Tarn mermaid, who was discovered in the highest named lake in the country, at over thirteen thousand feet in the Colorado Rockies!
HABITATS IN THIS GUIDE
Moving Fresh Water
These are habitats like streams and rivers, full of changes and energy.
Still Fresh Water
These include lakes and ponds and tend to be stable, reliable habitats.
These habitats have fluctuating amounts of water and can be salty, fresh, or brackish—a combination of both.
These saltwater environments fringe land and are home to some of the most busy and diverse mermaid ecosystems.
This is the biggest habitat type, but one of the least populated, split up by the amount of sunlight available.
Extreme and Unlikely
Whether harsh, remote, or just surprising, these are environments where you might not expect to find mermaids!
PRACTICE MERMAID SAFETY!
Always be safe when you are exploring water habitats! While searching for mermaids is fun, remember that water can be dangerous if you’re not careful. Follow these guidelines and other water-safety rules, and always tell someone where you are going.
Keep Yourself Safe
Know the rules of the place you’re in—if you’re in a protected park, some areas may be off-limits, or certain activities like rock or shell collecting might not be allowed.
Do not climb or jump on wet rocks, especially around moving water. Falling on slippery rocks is one of the main ways people injure themselves around water.
If you are in a boat or playing around deep water, always wear a life jacket, even if you know how to swim.
Keep Mermaids Safe
If you pick up a rock to look under it, be sure to put it gently back exactly where it was—creatures may depend on it for shelter.
Avoid changing the habitat you’re in, including building rock dams and digging out banks.
Never litter, and if possible, gather trash you might see. But always do this with gloves and a trash bag, and don’t try to reach trash that’s too far away or too big.
Practice water conservation at home—turn off taps when you don’t need them, take shorter showers, and don’t leave hoses running.
Check with your city government, or at your local community centers and parks, to see if there are programs where you can learn more about protecting water ecosystems near you!
MOVING FRESHWATER MERMAIDS
LIFE IN MOTION
Tiny springs bubbling up in high mountain meadows, thundering cascades churning with white foam, broad channels winding lazily toward the sea—life in streams and rivers is one of constant motion and change. Everything from food to rocks to trash tumbles down with the current. Floods scour the riverbed, changing the pattern of the banks. Water leaps over hillsides and boulders to form rapids and waterfalls. The mermaids who live in moving water are energetic and adaptable—just like their environment.
The smallest bodies of moving water are springs and brooks, which gather into streams and then into rivers. The nature of the habitat within them depends largely on what kind of land they’re passing through—rocky banks create rapids, while sandy banks create a gentler current. Some mermaids prefer the shallow, gravelly sections known as riffles, while others prefer the deeper, calmer pools, and yet others like the currents found in open channels.
Copyright © 2022 by Emily B. Martin