Fifty years ago, one of the most common of all advertisements in any medium that catered to kids (especially comic books, magazines, and television shows) was for Sea Monkeys. The ads invariably depicted a cartoon-like creature that, I suppose, might look a little like a monkey underwater, with fins of some sort. Of course, what came in the mail didn’t look anything like the picture in the advertisement. Still, the product sold like gangbusters.
The package containing the Sea Monkeys arrived in the mail with three packets inside. The first packet contained a “conditioner” that was added to ordinary tap water in order to increase salinity. After 24 hours, the water was salty enough and now safe to add the second packet containing the Sea Monkey eggs to the water. The third packet contained food for the little creatures.
The creatures were actually brine shrimp, specifically, Artemia salina, and technically not true shrimp. A. salina and other species in the genus Artemia are commonly found around the world in saline lakes, ponds, and estuaries too salty for fish. They’re not found in the oceans, as the ocean salinity is not high enough. This is an important feature for brine shrimp, as high salinity keeps fish and other aquatic predators out of their habitat.
A fascinating survival skill of the species provides for two different modes of hatching their young. In favorable environmental conditions, brine shrimp larva come in a thin shell, but in unfavorable conditions they’re encapsulated in a hard thick shell (colloquially known as eggs). The latter mode of birth has been widely used in the farmed fish industry. The brine shrimp are bred in unfavorable conditions, resulting in millions of hard shell eggs. Fish farmers buy the brine shrimp eggs and dump them in their fish ponds. The eggs ‘instantly’ hatch, releasing live food for the fish.
In 1957, a man by the name of Harold von Braunhut decided to market hard shell brine shrimp eggs as a novelty pet for kids. (He was also the guy who marketed “X-Ray Specs” and “Crazy Crabs” far and wide.) With the help of a marine biologist, von Braunhut found the right mix of sodium chloride and other ingredients for the first packet of his product which, initially, he branded as “Instant Life” and sold for just 49¢. In 1962, von Braunhut renamed the aquatic novelty “Amazing Sea-Monkeys”, obtaining a patent in 1972. Later on in the seventies, his association with the Ku Klux Klan became public knowledge and publishers began refusing to run ads for his novelty products.
Today, a new company with no connection or affiliation with von Braunhut is marketing brine shrimp as Sea Monkeys.
Species: A. salina
Binomial name: Artemia salina (Linnaeus, 1758)
This video on Sea Monkeys is excellent:
“The Dark History of Sea Monkeys” (9:58)