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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


"Rescue Sirens"' Common Mermaid Myths September 07, 2015 22:07

From Jess: 

Long before the novel "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" was so much as outlined, I started developing the property by writing a lengthy reference document that laid out our mermaids' unique mythology, evolution and physiology, habitats, society, and their culture and traditions. I knew I wanted the "Rescue Sirens" series to take place within a fully-realized world, even though I hadn't nailed down the first book yet, and I loved all the thought I could put into building that world within this supplemental volume. I also knew it would come in handy when Chris and I started writing the first novel!

I wrote the document from the point of view of a modern mermaid researcher (who somehow knows waaayy too much) living within the world of "Rescue Sirens." It was important to me to distinguish "Rescue Sirens" from all the wonderful mermaid stories (books, movies, TV shows, etc.) that had preceded it, and the "Common Mermaid Myths" page of the reference document had a little good-natured fun with well-established versions of mermaid tales that we all know and love. "Rescue Sirens" plays by different rules than many mermaid properties, and this was an entertaining way for me to define them! I hope you enjoy this peek behind-the-scenes into my super-secret notebook.

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COMMON MERMAID MYTHS

Over the centuries, mermaids have inspired countless myths and legends. Some contain elements of truth, but a number of them are entirely false or based on misunderstandings. Here are just a handful:

Do mermaids lure sailors to their deaths?

Quite the opposite! As covered in the mermaids' own human creation myth (see "Human Origins"), mermaids are sworn to protect humans. They're responsible for saving sailors, not luring them to their deaths. Where the confusion lies is in the term "siren," which has, over the years, come to be synonymous with "mermaid," but originally referred to Greek creatures that were half woman, half bird. According to Homer, two Sirens lived on an island in the western sea between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla, singing so sweetly that enchanted sailors piloted their ships into the rocks or even leapt overboard and drowned. The hero Odysseus saved himself and his crew by blocking their ears with wax and lashing himself to the mast to keep from steering the ship into the rocks when they sailed past the singing Sirens. Somehow, mermaids ended up with both the name "siren" and the undeserved bad reputation.

Do mermaids automatically transform into their tails when they get wet?

No. Despite popular media depicting mermaids on shore as existing at the mercy of water, unable to control changing from legs back to a tail if they fall in a swimming pool or get sprayed at a car wash, a conscious mermaid's transformation is entirely up to her. (See "Evolution & Physiology.") Any claim to the contrary is--well, just fantasy!

Can mermaids control the weather?

For seafaring humans, storms are a serious consideration, and many an ancient sailor would swear to you that a mermaid could call up a tempest or calm a hurricane depending on her mood. In reality, while they can sense a storm coming due to atmospheric changes that humans are unaware of, mermaids have no more control over the weather than any other marine species. That hasn't stopped some mermaids throughout history (such as Thessalonike of Macedon, an Atavist (see "Evolution & Physiology") and half-sister to Alexander the Great) from taking advantage of their very basic weather predicting abilities to give humans the impression that they were "causing" an oncoming squall if they were displeased. Mermaids have even incorporated this myth into their vernacular: a mermaid might be described as "summoning a storm" when she's particularly angry.

Aren't "mermaids" actually just manatees that lonely sailors mistook for women?

Although manatees (and their Australian relatives the dugongs) are classified as belonging to the scientific order Sirenia in an obvious nod to mermaids, they bear no relation to them, nor were these elephantine marine mammals the "real" source of past mermaid sightings. Even after being at sea for months, a sailor can definitely tell the difference between a manatee and a mermaid! Mermaids claim the ones who came up with that story are the manatees themselves -- but, as preposterous as the concept may be, it serves as effective cover to help keep the existence of mermaids a secret in today's world.