Doug Bonderud

Dec 2nd 2022

Proof of Mermaids? Science Tells the Tail


Do mermaids exist? Sadly, we can definitely say no, they do not.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts it simply: “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Unsurprisingly, however, this hasn’t stopped the search for proof of mermaids that could upend the scientific status quo.

Have merfolk fanatics had any luck? Not a bit. Is it interesting to see what they’ve come up with? Absolutely.

The Mermaid Myth

Myths surrounding mermaids, and to a lesser extent mermen, have existed for centuries. It makes sense, as the sea is both a mysterious force and an essential part of life for many people. Indeed, for hundreds of years sea travel was the only option for inter-ocean transport. It also stands to reason that sailors and people living on shorelines sometimes saw things they couldn’t explain, and many believed what they were seeing took the form of a half-human, half-fish creature.

Of course, what exactly a mermaid looks like depends on your source material. In Europe and North America, the top half of a mermaid’s body resembles that of a human woman, while the bottom is a fishtail. In Scottish folklore, mermaids achieved their underwater ability by wearing the skin of a fish, and if they lost this skin while on land, they wouldn’t be able to return. Sailors often associated mermaids with sirens who lured ships off course and their crews to rocky deaths on shoals or reefs. In the collection of Middle Eastern folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights, mermaids have faces and hair like women and tails like fish, but their hands and feet are inside their bellies.

Head to Japan and you’ll hear tales of the ningyo, a monkey-fish hybrid that lives in the sea. Supposedly, the creature came into being when a fisherman trespassed into protected waters and was cursed to wander the ocean as a monkey-fish mix. On his deathbed, he appeared to Prince Shotoku and asked the prince to forgive him for his crimes and build a temple to display his remains as a reminder of the sanctity of life — and not to trespass. Thanks to American and European influence, Japanese conceptions of merfolk have slowly shifted to the more familiar human-fish hybrid.

Of Monkeys and Merfolk

Earlier this year, scientists got the chance to examine one of these ningyo up close and in person after it was found inside a safe in an Okayama Prefecture temple. The effort began with Hiroshi Kinoshita, a board member of the Okayama Folklore Society. After coming across a picture of mummified ningyo remains in a book about mythical creatures, he was able to track the body back to the temple, where it was worshiped as an omen of good health. Notes left inside the mummy’s original box indicate that the creature was supposedly caught in the mid-18th century, sold to an affluent family, and eventually passed on to the temple.

In February 2022, the temple priests agreed to let scientists examine the body using a CT scan and take DNA samples to evaluate its genetic makeup. While those results haven’t yet been released, there’s a likely explanation: Someone may have grafted the head and torso of a monkey onto the tail of a fish and then added embellishments of human hair and nails.

This isn’t the first “mermaid” that’s been found in Japan. Ningyo are worshiped at several other temples across the country, and during the early years of European travelers visiting Japan, fake mermaids were sold to curious Western tourists who were unfamiliar with the legend.

Making a Mermaid

Where science says no, human ingenuity bridges the gap. In Weeki Wachee Springs State park, there’s a year-round show featuring women dressed as mermaids who swim through “a mysterious blue underwater world of mermaids, manatees, turtles, and bubbles.” Earlier this year, Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet aired a mermaid special that combines science fiction with some real events to make the case for mermaids. Paired with a somber, scientific tone, the special generated enough interest that NOAA received questions about the potential existence of mermaids and issued a formal statement regarding the lack of evidence to suggest that they are real.

Do mermaids exist? Put simply, there is no proof of mermaids being real, and the same goes for monkey-sea creature hybrids. Nonetheless, the fascination with mermaids isn’t going under. Rather, folks who are passionate about ocean people are creating their own versions of what mermaids might look like and exploring new ways of searching for these elusive sea sirens.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.