Mermaids are one of our shared cultural obsessions. Give us pretty much any kind of mermaid, and we’re sure to go collectively nuts.
We love animated mermaids:
Live action mermaids:
Scary CGI mermaids:
Yes, we love all mermaids, but that last one brings us to one of our biggest lingering questions about these beautiful, mysterious creatures of the sea: How do mermaids have sex?
The first instance of mermaid procreation in pop culture to come to mind is Ariel, from The Little Mermaid. In the movie’s direct-to-video sequel, we meet Ariel’s daughter, Melody, but Ariel had Melody as a human with her human husband, Eric. That’s not mermaid sex. That’s human sex, after which the baby decided to return to the sea and her mermaid heritage.
There has to be more to the mermaid birds and bees than that, which begs the question: How do mermaids have sex?
While we already know mermaids seem quite capable of orgasmic pleasure while in their mermaid state…
… the mechanics of just how that happens without the help of a show-stopping reprise are unclear.
To get to the bottom of things, we talked to George Parsons, Director of Fishes at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. With credentials like that, we knew Parsons was the man to help us get to the bottom of how mermaids get down.
To start, Parsons (who took the question of mermaid sex very seriously), poured over depictions of mermaids in pop culture and concluded that, based on the shape of their tails, they’re most likely a hybrid of humans (obviously) and pelagic fish. Here are some of Ariel’s cousins:
How do mermaids do the deed?
Well, if they’re as related to pelagic fish as they appear, mermaids and mermen would all have a slit, about halfway down their fin, from which they would release their eggs and sperm, respectively. Romantic, right? And speaking of romance, don’t expect any water-defying candles or soggy rose petals to set the mood for mermaid sex. No, they probably prefer to make a party of it, according to Parsons.
“Generally larger fish tend to, three or four times a year, have big reproductive parties, so to speak,” Parsons explained. “So maybe that’s what mermaids do. Mermaids and mermen have these big reproductive parties.”
Yes, you read that correctly: Reproductive parties. Parties at which reproduction happens. Mermaids have orgies.
“[The fish mermaids resemble] tend to gather in one or two spots and they have, um, reproduction groups of 4,000-10,000 animals all in the same area. And then on that magical night, they just all have a giant party,” Parsons added.
4,000-10,000 mermaids, having an orgy, making lots and lots of little bitty baby mermaids. Magical night, indeed.
And what happens after that oh-so-magical night? Mermaid babies, of course.
How do mermaids orgies lead to mermaid babies?
“They would be what are called pelagic spawners,” Parsons explained. “Which means that females would release their gametes—their eggs—and the males would swim up alongside them and release their sperm and [the baby mermaids] would be kind of larval for a while. That means they live in the water column until they morph into merpeople.”
Parsons explained that the baby mermaids, in their larval state, would float up in the water column to the planktonic level, where most of the plankton live. It’s a safer place for the defenseless baby
pelagic fish mermaids (away from most predators) and puts them in a prime location to find food when they hatch. Once they’re big enough to survive on their own and evade predators (which usually happens quickly—within a day or two for the fish mermaids seem most closely related to), baby mermaids would swim back down to their true home, to rejoin their parents.
Of course, not all of those baby mermaids would make it. Even though an adult mermaid could theoretically lay upwards of a million eggs at a time (SO. MANY. BABY. MERMAIDS), Parsons says most pelagic fish are lucky if 10 percent of those potential-offspring survive in open water, which means Ariel’s all-sister girl band could have been a lot, lot bigger.
The more you know, right?