Decades after the toy-pet hybrid first hit shelves, Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys is making headlines again—this time thanks to a "David and Goliath" trademark lawsuit between onetime Sea-Monkeys heir Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut and Big Time Toys, which claims to have full ownership of the empire. According to the New York Times, the lawsuit, as described by Signorellia von Braunhut's attorney, is "practically a newsreel melodrama." Before diving in to the legal drama, brush up on your Sea-Monkeys history: Here are a few things you might not have known about one of your favorite childhood pets.
1. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY A VISIT TO A PET STORE.
Trade publication ad for Sea-Monkeys, 1972. Courtesy the Strong National Museum of Play; click to enlarge.
In 1957, Harold von Braunhut became fascinated with a species of brine shrimp, Artemia salina, that he saw being sold as pet food in a pet store. “These shrimp live in salt lakes or salt flats, and when the water of a salt lake evaporates, the shrimp go into this state of suspended animation,” says Patricia Hogan, a curator at the Strong National Museum of Play. While in this state—also known as cryptobiosis—the animals are in a protective cyst-like casing, until water is added. Von Braunhut, with the help of marine biologist and microcrustacean expert Anthony D'Agostino, figured out a way to treat tap water with a mix of nutrients (von Braunhut called them “magic crystals” and mixed them in a barn on his property) that would revive the shrimp in a tank at home.
"People say, 'What gave you the idea for Sea-Monkeys?'” von Braunhut, who held about 200 patents, said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun in 1997. “I thought, if you could take a package of powder and put it in water and see it come to life. What could be more remarkable than that? … I was always interested in wildlife, and I was looking for something that would interest other people in it."
Hogan says that von Braunhut may also have been inspired by another popular product that hit the market the year before he got the idea for Sea-Monkeys: “This was also around the time of Uncle Milton and his ant farms,” Hogan says. “There was this kind of idea that you could sell science to kids or sell them lifeforms that would entertain them from which they could learn about nature. I’ve never seen anything that specifically said why Harold Von Braunhut was particularly hellbent on selling brine shrimp to kids, but it’s a good way to make a buck.”
2. THEY WEREN’T INITIALLY MARKETED AS SEA-MONKEYS.
Sea-Monkey ad circa 1963. Photo courtesy of eBay; click to enlarge.
When he began selling his shrimp in 1960s, von Braunhut marketed them under the name “Instant Life.” The kit sold for just 49 cents. “What you got was the packets of the shrimp and then the little packets of nutrients and the food the shrimp would eat,” Hogan says. “They did not come with a tank. You had to provide your own goldfish bowl.”
3. THEIR TAILS INSPIRED THEIR NAME.
Though they weren’t marketed that way, von Braunhut did call the brine shrimp sea-monkeys (and "exotic Saskatchewan Brine Shrimp") in his ads. According to Hogan, “He called them sea-monkeys because they have a tail that looks like a monkey’s tail. The sea part is obviously because they’re a water animal—though not of the ocean.” Notes Tim Walsh in his book, Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, “if this was marine biology these facts would matter, but this was marketing!” In 1964, the product lost the Instant Life name in favor of Sea-Monkeys.
4. THEY DON’T REALLY LOOK LIKE THE CREATURES ON THE PACKAGING.
The naked, pot-bellied humanoid creatures with crown-like head ornaments don’t resemble actual brine shrimp at all. Von Braunhut hired comic book artist Joe Orlando—who would later go on to become vice president of DC Comics and associate publisher of MAD magazine—to draw the 1950s-esque humanoid creatures, which actually look like this:
Photo courtesy of Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons; click to enlarge.
“The sea monkeys weren’t all that kids were led to believe from the marketing,” Hogan says. “I think kids are pretty clever at making things work or finding ways to have fun, even with something that may disappoint them because they’re not exactly what they appeared.”
In 1999, Educational Insights—the company that owns ExploraToy, which markets Sea-Monkeys—attempted to revamp the critters’ look. Gregory Bevington, at the time art director of ExploraToy, described the Sea-Monkeys’ old aesthetic to the Los Angeles Times as "naked people with webbed tails and feet and hands and three prongs sticking out of their heads. They have potbellies and skinny arms and legs so they're not really physically fit. … If we really want them to appeal to kids of today, they need to look like superheroes or action figures.” According to Times, the new Sea-Monkeys “had enormous torsos and tree-trunk legs. Some wore scaly breast plates; others sported capes.” Ultimately, the changes weren't made.
5. THEY WERE FIRST ADVERTISED IN COMIC BOOKS.
Despite the success of Uncle Milton’s ant farms, chain stores wouldn’t touch von Braunhut’s creatures, in part because of Wham-O’s disastrous Instant Fish toy. “Wham-O was flying higher than a kite with the Superball and the Hula Hoop, and they took a risk on an instant fish. But the fish didn't work,” von Braunhut told the LA Times in 2000 (this same piece revealed the inventor’s ties to white supremacist groups; you can read more about this unsettling part of von Braunhut's past here). “The buyer at Sears, Roebuck almost got fired because of it. So when I took my Sea-Monkeys around after that, you'd think another Ice Age had happened. The doors that weren't open to begin with slammed shut in my face.”
So in 1962, he started buying up advertising space in comic books, writing the copy—which promised “a BOWLFULL OF HAPPINESS”—himself. “He was quoted as saying that he bought 3.2 million pages in comic book ads a year,” Hogan says. “He put those ads in every kind of comic book—in Archie and Spiderman and Casper the Friendly Ghost. He didn’t go for a type or genre of comic books. These were marketed directly to kids, bypassing parental authority, but also parental cautions. And that strategy was successful.”
All people had to do was send the money to the address in the ad, and their Sea-Monkeys would arrive in the mail.
6. THEY’RE A SPECIES THAT DOESN’T EXIST IN NATURE.
Keeping the original Sea-Monkeys alive was "a terrible struggle," von Braunhut told the Sun; typically, just two of the shrimp would live for a month (the inventor got around their short life spans by offering a “sea-monkey life insurance policy,” good for two years after purchase). He and D'Agostino began cross-breeding shrimp from the genus Artemia to make a heartier species, which they named Artemia NYOS, after the Montor, Long Island lab (New York Oceanic Society) where they were created.
“We wanted them to grow to be large enough to be of interest, but also live long enough to be a pet,” von Braunhut recounted in Timeless Toys in 2002, just a year before his death. “These goals took years to attain.”
"There's something in the powder [Harold] formulates that does something to those eggs that nature can't do," George C. Atamian, Vice President of ExploraToy, which sells Sea-Monkeys, told the LA Times. "It used to be [that] only one Sea Monkey lived and that [same] one died. Now the formulation of the chemistry, the vigor of the Sea Monkeys themselves, is better than ever.”
7. THEY BREATHE THROUGH THEIR FEET.
And that’s not the only weird thing about their anatomy: They’re born with just one eye, but grow two more upon reaching maturity.
8. THEY’RE ATTRACTED TO LIGHT.
“If you put a flashlight to them, Sea-Monkeys will swim toward it,” Hogan says. “It’s kind of a natural reaction. And if you run your finger tip across the tank, they will often gravitate to it.”
9. INSTANT LIFE? WELL, NOT QUITE.
Any kid who had Sea-Monkeys knows that you had to add the nutrient packet to prep your tap water, wait 24 hours, and then add the packet of eggs. But according to von Braunhut’s patent, there are eggs in the nutrient packet, too—and a dye from the second packet of eggs makes those first hatchlings easier to see (emphasis ours):
This invention provides for making an aquatic life habitat for the hatching of brine shrimp in tap water and divides the materials that are necessary into two groups. The first a water purifier and conditioner group comprising a number of salts necessary for the creation of the proper saline environment including also a drying agent such as calcium chloride for maintaining the group in a dry condition, an oxidizing agent such as sodium thiosulphate and some brine shrimp eggs. This first group is added to the tap water and allowed to stand for 24 to 36 hours at room temperature. The second group is comprised of additional salts for the saline environment, food for the hatched brine shrimp, additional brine shrimp eggs, a drying agent such as dried Epsom salt and a water-soluble dye. The second group is added to the aged water medium whereby the dye colors in the water give the hatched brine shrimp of the first group easier visibility, thereby giving the impression of instant life.
10. THERE ARE A TON OF SEA-MONKEY ACCESSORIES.
Sea-Monkey sets that included tanks (notably Sea-Monkey Ocean Zoo and Sea-Monkey Circus) became available in stores in the late 1960s; soon there was a slew of other sea-monkey accessories, including Sea-Monkey Speedway and Sea-Monkey Fox Hunt (above), which debuted in the 1970s.
Trade publication ad circa 1973. Courtesy of the Strong National Museum of Play; click to enlarge.
The Sea-Monkey Handbook that accompanies the critters in that first set also offers a range of other products for the microcrustacean's pleasure, including a "banana treat" ("a long-lasting supply of tasty 'dessert' for your aquatic pets"), "red magic" vitamins ("this is the formula containing EVERY KNOWN VITAMIN your Sea-Monkeys NEED for robust health!"),"Sea-Diamonds" ("this heap of sparkling 'sea gems' make Sea-Monkeys happy by giving them toys they will actually play with!"), and more.
11. THEY’RE NOT HARMFUL TO THE ENVIRONMENT.
Don’t worry: If you end up losing some of your shrimp down the drain, they won’t become an invasive species a la the asian carp or the lion fish; in fact, they can’t survive outside of the water prepared for them with von Braunhut’s formula.
12. YOU CAN TELL MALE SEA-MONKEYS FROM LADY SEA-MONKEYS.
Males have whiskers under their chins; females don’t. You can often see males locked together, fighting for the attention of female sea-monkeys. If two sea-monkeys are locked together and one of them doesn’t have whiskers, you are witnessing a very private sea-monkey moment that can last for days. (Yup. Days.)
Females will develop a pouch when they’re pregnant, but they don’t need to mate to become so: They can fertilize their own eggs, a process known as parthenogenesis; when the eggs hatch, the shrimp are tiny—just about as big as the period at the end of this sentence—and can grow up to 2 inches long.
13. SEA-MONKEYS WENT TO SPACE.
On October 29, 1998, the Space Shuttle Discovery carried some very special cargo into space: Astronaut John Glenn—who, at 77, was participating in a study on the effects of space on the elderly—and 400 million Sea-Monkey eggs. The eggs spent nine days in space and, when they were hatched eight weeks later, the creatures showed no ill effects from their journey. Educational Insights commemorated the trip with a special edition aquarium built according to NASA design (above).
14. THEY’RE POPULAR IN POP CULTURE—AND HAVE MANY FAMOUS FANS.
The Pixies and Liz Phair have name-dropped them in songs. Brooke Shields is reportedly a fan. They’ve been featured on South Park (see the song above), Spin City, Roseanne, Night Court, The Simpsons, 3rd Rock from the Sun, American Dad, It's Garry Shandling's Show, Desperate Housewives and more. Not bad for brine shrimp!
15. THE CRITTERS INSPIRED A VIDEO GAME …
“There is danger everywhere: Predatory fish like electric eels and octopuses are only waiting for the Sea Monkeys being handed to them on a plate,” read IGN’s description of this one-player game, which debuted in the early 2000s. “But you can influence the Sea Monkeys to protect them from evil and guide them to a safe place ... you can ensure the survival of the Sea Monkeys by making clever use of the sea world.”
But the game had reviewers bored. “Every item is accompanied by a description that includes jokes hilarious enough to have been written by eighties comedian Sinbad,” one reviewer wrote. “When The Amazing Virtual Sea-Monkeys claims to be rated ‘E for Everyone,’ what they really mean is ‘Unless you’re younger than twelve, you will be helpless to imagine a world in which you could enjoy this game.’”
16. … AND A TV SHOW.
The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys aired on CBS in 1992. The series—which starred Howie Mandel as a professor who accidentally enlarges three Sea-Monkeys to human size—aired in the U.S. and Australia and lasted just 11 episodes. You can watch a clip above.
A version of this story first ran in 2014.