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Siren Spotlight: biological atavism December 01, 2015 06:00

From Jess: 

The first book in the "Rescue Sirens" series is subtitled "The Search for the Atavist"... but what is an Atavist, anyway?

According to our unique mermaid mythology, merfolk existed before human beings — in fact, they represent our species' very origin. From the beginning of time, mermaids and mermen were able to "make legs" indistinguishable from our own and walk around on shore, where they bred, gave birth in special birthing coves, and simply explored the vast expanses of wild land.

There was a catch, though (isn't there always?): after more than a day away from the ocean, legged merfolk would start to feel ill, and if they went for three full days without "turning tail" and submerging in water from head to fin-tip, their specialized lungs would dry up and they would lose their ability to change from legs to tail. Forever.

In other words, they became human.

Across the globe, merfolk were trapped on land often enough — due to losing their way, natural disasters, illness or injury, and even treachery — that the resulting small bands of human beings were able to sustain and eventually grow their population (although the offspring of human/human pairings lacked from birth the capacities to "turn tail" and breathe underwater). These humans were watched over when they went near the water by the mermaids and mermen still living in the ocean, and merfolk observe that ancient vow to protect their landbound brethren to this day; that's the role of a Rescue Siren.

But sometimes, once in a very long while, a human being is born with the ability locked within them to change their legs into a tail (and back again) as well as to breathe water, just like humankind's merfolk ancestors. This genetic throwback is known amongst merfolk as an Atavist.

The concept might sound like fantasy, but it has its roots in science. Courtesy of Dictionary.com, an atavism is defined as follows:

atavism
[at-uh-viz-uh m]
noun
1. Biology.
a. the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.
b. an individual embodying such a reversion.
2. reversion to an earlier type; throwback.

Origin of atavism
1825-35; < Latin atav (us) remote ancestor (at-, akin to atta familiar name for a grandfather + avus grandfather, forefather) + -ism

Related forms
atavist, noun

Since humans came from merfolk, the lower body's ability to metamorphosize between a legged and tailed form as well as the specialized lungs that allow breathing above and below water are biological atavisms. If the genes governing those features get "switched on" in the womb, that person will have the potential to regain the traits of his or her merfolk ancestors. (Successfully activating those traits if they're present is another matter entirely, however; you'll have to read the book to find out how that happens!)

Some of the most compelling examples of a biological atavism come from the sea, as well, but in reverse: wild whales and dolphins have been photographed with floppy little vestigial legs! Because cetaceans' origins are thought to lie in land-dwelling creatures like Pakicetus, today’s whales and dolphins still retain small bones in their lower bodies that resemble a reduced pelvic bone and hind limbs. Most of the time, these limb structures remain internal, but, when the genetic switch for longer legs gets flipped to the "on" position, you get—well, this: 

Read the "National Geographic" article from 2006.

Crazy, right? I hope the other dolphins don’t make fun of them.

In addition to dolphins with hind legs like the one pictured above, scientists have also recorded cases of snakes with limbs and chickens with teeth, hearkening back to these animals' earlier forms as they existed millions of years ago.

You may even have heard about (or read — I haven't, yet) paleontologist Jack Horner's 2009 book, "How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution," in which he "predicted that scientists would someday be able to turn chickens into dinosaur-like forms" ("Reverse Engineering Birds' Beaks into Dinosaur Bones," NYTimes.com, 2015). That would involve "switching on" the genes that code for teeth and long tails, which the humble chicken possesses as relics passed down from its dinosaurian ancestors. It's an attempt at turning back the evolutionary clock that might yield very... interesting... results.

Since birds are the only surviving members of the family tree of the dinosaurs, why can't we flip some switches in the genetic code and return a chicken back to its former glory as a dinosaur?
Source: LiveScience

So, there you have it: the answer to the question "What is an Atavist?" In "Rescue Sirens"' lore, the Atavist is a genetic throwback  a human with his or her "mer-gene" turned on — in the same vein as other biological atavisms, like dolphins with wee squiggly legs or hens with teeth. Oh, I love science.


"Rescue Sirens" logo T-shirts available now! November 16, 2015 13:35

From Jess: 

Ever since Chris and I debuted "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" at San Diego Comic-Con while wearing our snazzy "Rescue Sirens" shirts, we've been asked if we'd sell that same T-shirt design someday. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology known as direct-to-garment printing, that day has arrived!

TeePublic offers DTG-printed apparel in a variety of styles, so you can choose from short-sleeved unisex or women's tees; tank tops in either a standard cut or racerback; and even kids' tees for your little Rescue Sirens-in-training. Shirt prices start at $18.00 for Toddler or Juvenile kids' shirts, with adult tees costing $20.00-$24.00 (depending on the style selected). In the image above, I have on a women's T-shirt in size Small.

If you're not familiar with print-on-demand apparel companies, TeePublic's FAQ should answer any questions you may have. They handle order payment and processing, shirt production, and shipping.

Want to show your support as part of the "Rescue Sirens" team? Get your very own logo T-shirt here!


Genevieve Tsai at CTNX 2015 November 12, 2015 08:00

From Jess: 

Genevieve Tsai, the talented artist behind "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist"'s seven interior illustrations, will be appearing at CTN's animation eXpo in Burbank, California from November 20th through November 22nd!

If you're in the Los Angeles area and you're in the mood for adding to your art collection and/or being incredibly inspired, drop by Table T-70 and visit Genevieve. She'll be selling new prints, including those of her work on "Rescue Sirens"! Plus, she's an all-around awesome human being and incredibly fun to talk to.

For those of you who can't make it to CTNX but still want to get your hands on "Rescue Sirens" prints by Genevieve, they're for sale right this very second in her online store (with worldwide shipping): http://genevievetsai.etsy.com

Genevieve's two collected volumes of sketches and finished artwork are also available online. Her first compilation, "For the Love of Lines," is an absolutely delight -- it's one of the reasons that we approached her about doing the illustrations for "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist," in fact -- while her follow-up sketchbook, "For the LOLz," is every bit as good. Both books are full of beautiful artwork, but what we find equally as impressive are the sketches showing all the work that goes into a single finished piece. It's fascinating, and it illustrates just how talented and skilled an artist Genevieve really is.

If you'd like to see just how much work went into Genevieve's "Rescue Sirens" pieces, drop what you're doing and take a look at her latest blog post, which details her process from thumbnail to finished illustration. It is dizzyingly inspirational! We're pretty sure that Genevieve is magic.  =)

To follow Genevieve online, check out her website, her blog, her Facebook page, and her Tumblr. She continues to amaze us, and we can't wait to see what she does next!


"Sirens" Songs: musical inspiration October 30, 2015 18:26

From Jess: 

My husband and co-author, Chris, has worked in the animation industry for almost thirty years. He helped shape modern Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Mulan," and he co-wrote/co-directed and lent his style (and his voice!) to "Lilo & Stitch." At DreamWorks, his current studio, Chris co-wrote and co-directed the first "How to Train Your Dragon" film as well as "The Croods." He's always worked in story, whether that means storyboarding (which he still does today even in his role as director) or writing, and, if you ask him what one of the most important tools is in filmmaking, he'll tell you that it's music.

"Music does the heavy lifting," Chris says, and he went into his first project as director planning for that. When it was time to talk about budgets and music for "Lilo & Stitch," Chris wanted to hire one of his favorite composers, Alan Silvestri (known for scoring "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," and "The Avengers," among many, many other films), and Chris told his producers that the score for the film was of paramount importance. Even though they were going to be making "Lilo & Stitch" for a budget, he made an agreement with the studio that whatever the best score in the world would cost, they could carve that off the overall budget and he'd make the movie for whatever was left over. Alan delivered a score for "Lilo & Stitch" that was rousing, moving, and emotional. Not only that, but Alan directly affected the story. And Chris learned a lesson that he would never forget.

In the early planning stages of the music for the film, Alan would view the story reels with Chris and co-director Dean DeBlois, and they would discuss the placement and vibe they were considering from moment to moment. After covering most of the film, Alan surprised Chris with a question. "There's one thing I think I missed," Alan remarked. "I didn't catch the moment when Stitch turns from bad to good."

"The question caught us off guard," Chris says today. "Even though the entire film was based on the idea that a villain would be redeemed rather than killed off, as they usually did in Disney movies, we had left that pivotal moment off the screen. We explained to Alan that of all the moments in the movie we'd written, we just couldn't find a way to land that one. It was too subtle, too delicate. We'd both taken runs at it and whenever we'd tried to verbalize it, we'd failed. It was always too awkward, or too vague. So in the end we'd just left it to happen off-screen. We just couldn't find a way to do it.

"And that's when everything for me changed. Alan looked at us and simply said, 'Put it on screen, and I'll do it.'

"Boom. A light went on. Up till that moment, I'd thought of music as something to sweeten what was already there. But Alan reminded me that music was much, much more than that. It was a tool of storytelling. In fact, I've come to think of a score as the closest thing to real magic there is. It is at once a wing and a throttle. It raises or turns your emotions and either propels you forward or holds you entranced and still. It can be a jolt or a kiss. It wakes up your heart. It is powerful. It is unassailable."

Chris goes on: "So the most important moment in the film was carried by Alan. And it was perfect. From that time on I would build homes for music within my films. Quiet zones where the characters would shut up and music would do the talking. A perfect example of that would be the sequence in which Hiccup befriends Toothless in 'How to Train Your Dragon' (scored by John Powell), or the moment in the treetop when the Croods see the stars for the first time in 'The Croods' (like 'Lilo & Stitch,' scored by Alan Silvestri).

"It's the thing I most look forward to when I write and storyboard," Chris says.

Long before there's a scene on screen -- or, in the case of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist," if you're penning a book rather than a screenplay -- having the right music playing when you're writing a scene can make the difference between smooth sailing and tearing your hair out. But, just like Chris and I have different writing styles (he's a gardener; I'm an architect), we also have our individual preferences when it comes to the music we put on while we write.

While Chris likes to listen primarily to movie scores, my go-to music for writing is the background music in video games. The first video game music that I fell in love with was Spencer Nilsen's instrumental work for Sega's first two "Ecco the Dolphin" games (and some of Tim Follin's score on "Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future" for the Dreamcast), and that haunting, dreamy ocean sound was the perfect background for writing much of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist."

The thing I like best about video game music is that (with the exception of cinematics, which are more--well, cinematic!) it's pleasantly repetitive by design; a video game's score has to be something that you can listen to over and over and over again when your character keeps dying (or is that just me?), and it also has to add a mood and an atmosphere without calling so much attention to the music that it distracts you from playing the game. It helps put me in the right mindset without getting in the way. Film scores, by contrast, are written to complement specific actions on the screen, which is awesome when you're watching the movie -- a passive activity -- but, for me, not so awesome when I'm trying to write and the music accompanying that surprise explosion scene takes me right out of what I was doing. Many people, like Chris, aren't bothered by that, and can even listen to songs with lyrics while they write, but, for yours truly, video game music is the way to go.

In addition to the "Ecco the Dolphin" scores, I also listened to a lot of music from two other ocean-themed game series: Nintendo/Arika's "Endless Ocean" and its sequel "Endless Ocean: Blue World," and "Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories," composed by Hideki Sakamoto. When you're writing about mermaids, it helps to have appropriate music playing!

But I had other game soundtracks on rotation, too -- games that had little or nothing to do with water. Greg Edmonson's "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," and "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" albums are all fun, adventurous instrumentals... 

...while Jeremy Soule's score for "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is some of my favorite music of all time, period. Soule isn't called "the John Williams of video game music" for nothing, and his work on "Oblivion" is by turns stirring, delicate, and bittersweet -- but always beautiful.

The most recent addition to my "Rescue Sirens" writing playlist is the soundtrack to a video game that I've never actually played: Devolver Digital's "Hotline Miami." Since "Rescue Sirens" is set in Miami Beach, I thought I'd give this album a shot even though I knew nothing about the game, and I'm really glad I did.

Much of "Hotline Miami"'s electronic music is leisurely and lazy, chill, ambient, relaxing but never, never boring; it's like eighties synth music was chopped up in a wood chipper and then put back together again in a way that's a bit... off. It is, to me, a sound that defies easy explanation, but I love it and I listened to it like crazy while writing the last chapters of the book.

There are various artists who contributed to "Hotline Miami"'s twenty-two track album; my favorites are probably Sun Araw, who performed "Horse Steppin'" and "Deep Cover," and Jasper Byrne, who did "Hotline" and (wait for it...) "Miami," but the whole album is enjoyable. If you're curious, you can listen to the soundtrack in its weird, wonderful entirety on Devolver Digital's SoundCloud account.

Now that Chris and I are working on the next "Rescue Sirens" story, it's time to sift through our respective music collections and make our playlists, which is always fun; maybe we'll even find some new favorites!

If you write, or draw, or sew, or do anything else creative, what do you like to have on in the background?


Siren Spotlight: Caribbean monk seal September 29, 2015 18:33

From Jess: 

When I first began developing "Rescue Sirens," I wanted our mermaids to be examples of convergent evolution: the phenomenon by which organisms of unrelated lineages show similar adaptations due to comparable environmental influences. In other words, animals that occupy the same biological niche share the same types of features because they're doing the same kind of things.

Since the mermaids in "Rescue Sirens" live in the waters around South Florida, most of them have lower bodies that resemble marine life native to that area (Nim being the sole exception, with her fantastical "classic" mermaid tail). Tiger sharks (Kelby), common dolphins (Maris), and blue marlins (Echo) are pretty obvious choices for South Florida sea creatures, but the one tail that regularly throws people for a loop is Pippa's, which looks like a seal tail.

Pippa, drawn by Chris Sanders and colored by Edgar Delgado.

Most people we've talked to assume Pippa's tail is supposed to be a harbor seal's. "Since when do harbor seals live off the coast of Miami?", we've been asked.

With the exception of the occasional wayward individual (like "Sunny," a young harbor seal rescued in New Smyrna Beach, Florida back in 2004), East Coast harbor seals like to stick around the chilly North Atlantic; you may see them as far south as North Carolina, but they're not adapted to warmer waters. A harbor seal wouldn't do well in Miami Beach.

But Pippa's tail is not modeled after a harbor seal. Her environmental inspiration is the Caribbean monk seal.

A captive Caribbean monk seal in the New York Aquarium, 1910. Photo courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Not much is known about the Caribbean monk seal. In fact, this species of seal hasn't been seen since 1952, when a small colony was sighted on the Seranilla Bank between Honduras and Jamaica. Despite that, the species was listed as "endangered" until 2008, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) completed a five-year status review and determined the Caribbean monk seal to be extinct.

Caribbean monk seals used to inhabit the waters of the Caribbean Sea, the western Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico; they hauled out on the sands of the Florida Keys and South Florida as well as Cuba and Jamaica, and they had breeding grounds in the Bahamas and Mexico. They are the only species of seal ever known to be native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

Map courtesy of NOAA's NMFS

The Caribbean monk seal's historic range. Map courtesy of NOAA's NMFS.

So what happened to the Caribbean monk seal? Their only predators were sharks -- and man. Christopher Columbus first described the Caribbean monk seal in 1494 and referred to them as "sea wolves." Upon discovering the animals resting on a beach, he had his crew kill eight of them immediately. Caribbean monk seals were docile and didn't flee from humans, making them exceptionally easy prey for fishermen, sailors, and whalers who wanted the seals' pelts, meat, and oil. According to the "Catalogue of the Specimens of Mammalia in the Collection of the British Museum," "as early as 1688, sugar plantations owners sent out hunting parties to kill hundreds of seals every night in order to obtain oil to lubricate the plantations' machinery." With that kind of mass slaughter taking place, the Caribbean monk seals' numbers had dwindled to the point that they could no longer be commercially hunted by 1850.

What probably finished off the Caribbean monk seal, though, was the decimation of their food source. Even the tiny remaining populations of Caribbean monk seals couldn't be supported by the tropical reefs where they fed due to constant overfishing by humans, and no real effort was made to protect the species. The Caribbean monk seal was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1967, fifteen years after the last reported sighting, so odds are good that it was already extinct.

Today, the Caribbean monk seal is survived by its relatives, the Hawaiian monk seal and the Mediterranean monk seal. However, both species are critically endangered; it's estimated that there about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals alive in the wild, and only around 600 Mediterranean monk seals. But there's potentially good news: according to Loren McClenachan and Andrew B. Cooper, who published a study on the historical population structure of the Caribbean monk seal, "although [Caribbean monk seal] colonies on the edge of the range were eliminated quickly, the persistence of those in the centre and on offshore atolls indicates that monk seals are resistant to moderate to intense levels of human disturbance, which suggests that proper protection has the potential to save the remaining Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seal colonies from extinction."

Hunting thankfully isn't the problem today that it was for the Caribbean monk seal centuries ago, but modern monk seals must still deal with the effects of overfishing as well as habitat loss, pollution, and entanglement in marine debris, so they have a number of hurdles to overcome. But people can help. The Save Monk Seals Project at the University of California at Santa Cruz states that "over 20% of the remaining [Hawaiian] monk seal population is alive today due to scientists and volunteers working together," so people can make a difference.

While the Caribbean monk seal, the only seal species that ever swam and played around Miami, has been lost to us, it may not be too late for the remaining two species of monk seals to recover if we can learn lessons from the past.

Pippa and a monk seal friend, drawn by artist Giada Carboni (giadin-a.tumblr.com).



Further reading:

Caribbean Monk Seal: Gone But Not Forgotten - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) - Office of Protected Resources - NOAA Fisheries