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Sea Monkeys

Sea Monkeys. They're amazing. You can even "train" them (we kids didn't know what the apostrophes around the word "train" implied). You can get hundreds of pets for a measly buck and a quarter. And they look like innocuous creatures from the black lagoon, only in shades of innocent pink, and with those cute little crownlike horns on their heads (we also ignored the disclaimer that the illustrations did NOT represent artemia salina).

Sea monkeys were the brainchild of one Harold Nathan Braunhut, who early on saw the potential of selling mundane stuff to lots of youngsters with the aid of colorful, attractive comic book ads.

Pretty smart business, actually. Kids who were expecting pink mermaids and mermen got instead swimming creatures from nothing more than fine dust. We didn't care if they were nearly microscopic. We were still thrilled.

I never sent off in the mail for my sea monkeys, like millions of other kids did. In fact, I knew about their scientific identity going in. I got a cool Gilbert microscope as a gift when I was nine years old, and included with it was a brine shrimp nursery.

The idea was that you take the shrimp eggs, put them in salt water, and you have an instant really neat thing to peer at at 100x magnification.

I was sharp on scientific names. I can still recite dozens of them. For example, when I see a mockingbird, the first thing that pops into my mind is "mimis polyglottus," which, according the the Real Book I read long ago, means "many-tongued mimic." So I spotted the name artemia salina in the ad, and knew going in that sea monkeys were none other than brine shrimp.

In deserts, there are large basins that may be completely dry for years at a time. But laying patiently dormant within the hard, dried mud of those basins are hundreds of millions of tiny eggs. They are dry as a bone, shaped like little cups. When a scarce rain surrounds them with moisture, they quickly swell into tiny spheres and hatch into larvae within 24 hours. The species instinctively knows that it may not have long to reproduce, so they grow to adulthood and mate in very short order. In natural conditions, they live a year.

Mr. Braunhut saw the insignificant creatures as a potential goldmine. He harvested billions of the nearly invisible eggs, hired an illustrator to depict them as cute pink humanoids, and priced them cheaply enough that parents could be persuaded to part with their cost.

I bought a sea monkey kit at a store when I was twelve. I was curious if there was anything different about the artemia salina that would hatch.

Indeed, there was. The salt/egg mixture tinted the water blue, making them easier to see.

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