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We are about to tell you a story that you might think you know...but unless you know that the Ku Klux Klan was involved...you’re going to want to stick around.

Because the interface of humanity and the natural world is always a very fraught place. Pets are a matter of personal preference, but they’re also a bit about the branding.

Like, we all know that there’s kind of a feel to a dog person and a cat person. But also, take brine shrimp. That’s not a name that suggests a particularly exciting pet, but that did not stop me.

When I was seven years old my dad helped me follow the instructions on an ad in, I think, a teenage mutant ninja turtles comic so that I could order my very own brine shrimp. Of course, they were not called brine shrimp. They were called sea monkeys.

And they were, I’ll be honest, pretty difficult to take care of. I don’t think they lasted very long. Now, not everyone had sea monkeys, just like not everyone watched the 1992 sitcom “The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys” about three human-sized sea monkeys and the professor (played by Howie Mandel) who enlarged them.

In fact, given that the show lasted only 11 episodes, I don’t know that anyone watched it. But that’s okay because we don’t need a professor to enlarge our sea monkeys. We have a microscope.

But before we get to the organism behind all of this magic, let’s talk a little bit about the magic itself—the experience of “instant life” (as it was marketed) packaged into a toy. The premise is kind of immense, like you feel as if you are creating life, but the instructions were simple. All you needed, according to the original 1972 patent, were three packets.

Packet 1 contained the water conditioner, Packet 2 contained the eggs, and Packet 3 contained the food. Just add Packet 1 to get the water ready, wait 24 hours, then add Packet 2…and voila, watch in amazement as they instantly hatch. Now the “instant life” of the sea monkey is actually the achievement less of you or the people at Sea Monkey HQ, and more of Artemia salina, the brine shrimp.

While not technically a shrimp, the brine shrimp is a crustacean found in salty lakes and ponds. And while their rebranding as sea monkeys is a more recent innovation, Artemia have been around for over 100 million years. Artemia swim upside-down, and breathe through gills near the base of their limbs.

And they spend their days seeking out their favorite food: algae. But Artemia also make for great food themselves, which is why they’re cultivated to feed fish being farmed for your own future meals or aquariums. The Artemia’s downfall, if you want to call it that, is its own resilience.

Female Artemia can produce two types of eggs. The first, when the world around it is comfortable, will be thin-shelled and quick to hatch. The second though, when the world around it is less comfortable, will be hard-shelled—a cyst.

And inside that cyst is a larva, fully-developed but kept in wait until the conditions are okay for it to leave the cyst. With just the right mixture of salty water, the Artemia will emerge from its rest. Scientists of course have done the obvious thing and sent these cysts into space, launching them aboard the Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 moon missions to assess their hardiness against cosmic radiation and many of the eggs were able to hatch after that exposure, though with some deformities.

But back here on earth, the hardiness of those cysts makes them well-suited for the more mundane concerns of fish food. In the 1930s, a species called Artemia nauplii became the live fish food of choice for many. And Artemia eggs continue to be sold for fish cultivation.

That’s actually how we got ours: James, our master of microscopes, ordered a packet of about a million eggs on the internet and then concocted his own special briny mixture like a mixologist at a microscopic bar to give them the right conditions to emerge in. And Artemia could have remained largely just a matter of fish food, except that in 1957, a man named Harold von Braunhut entered a pet store and left with an idea. His muse… was a bucket full of fish food.

You know, Artemia. This was a time when ant farms were popular, and von Braunhut was struck with the notion that maybe what ant farms needed was an aquatic twist. But there was a challenge.

Hatching Artemia as fish food is not quite the same as hatching Artemia as a pet. You only need the fish food to last as long as it takes for the fish to eat it. But the Artemia that von Braunhut wanted to sell as a pet only lasted a few days.

So, as one would do, he recruited the help of a marine biologist, a guy named Anthony D’Agostino to create a hardier Artemia, though the secrets of how they did this, we have not been able to uncover. But the science alone is not enough to sell shrimp. And von Braunhut was dealing with a customer base that already had its heart broken by a similar product called the Instant Fish, which used dormant African killifish eggs, but was unable to meet the demands of its buyers.

The thing to know about Harold von Braunhut though was that his primary occupation was showman. He’d successfully sold a product called Invisible Goldfish, which came with a fishbowl and fish food, but no fish. So, if you are a man who can sell no fish, then you are definitely a man who can sell Sea Monkeys, and Von Braunhut was able to do that by turning to comic book advertisements, and there, the kingdom of sea monkeys was built .

But the showmanship wasn’t just in the advertising. Every time a kid added the second packet in their Instant Life kit, they were getting a bit of the same flair that made von Braunhut’s other creations so thrilling. Because Packet 1, you know, the ozone that was supposed to condition your water, and make it nice and homey for the second packet of eggs that you’d add 24 hours later?

Yeah, that packet wasn’t just water conditioner. It also had some eggs. And Packet 2—the one with the eggs—didn’t just have eggs.

It also had some water-soluble dye in it. And by the time you added that packet, the first round of eggs would already have been hatched, but they would be difficult to see…until the water filled with dye and made their hatched bodies visible. And the result, as the patent says, is “the impression of instant life.” We should warn you now that the history of the sea monkey only gets darker from here.

Harold von Braunhut was a white supremacist who, when he had to go see the U. S. attorney after lending a member of the Ku Klux Klan money to buy illegal guns, did bring some sea monkeys with him. And because of this association, comic book companies stopped advertising his creations, but von Braunhut was still able to sell his sea monkeys in other ways.

After his death in 2007, von Braunhut’s widow signed a deal with a toy company to sell sea monkeys, only to later sue them for breach of contract and trade infringement. The toy company claimed they were actually sourcing different Artemia now, and while the case was settled, we do not know what the terms were of this sea monkey settlement. Harold von Braunhut created a story around Artemia that created an entirely different creature, to turn their most remarkable accomplishment into a sleight of hand.

And the showmanship was certainly clever, allowing us to imagine that there are tiny individuals living tiny lives in tiny worlds like ours. But of course, that is not the life of the brine shrimp. Nor does it need to be.

The sea monkey’s less contrived story is out there, not frozen in time, but simply unfolding in millions of different directions over tens of millions of years. Artemia, you were once a sea monkey to me, but now I know the truth...you are you, which is a much better thing to know. Thank you for coming on this extra surprising journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us.

Don’t forget, you’ve only got one day to pre-order that tardigrade t-shirt in the color of your choice before one of them goes away forever. So, visit dftba.com or click the link in the description if you’d like to order one of those. Hey, the people on our screen right now, they are our Patreon patrons.

The ones that allow us to look at the microcosmos and say, “What stories could this tell about our world? And how surprised are we going to be when we start uncovering those details?” We could not do that work without these people. So, if you like what we do, they are the people to thank.

And I also like what we do so I would like to say thank you to them. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes James Weiss, you can check out Jam & Germs on Instagram. And if you want to see more from us, I bet you there’s a subscribe button somewhere nearby.