The Once And Future Shrimp: Brine Shrimp
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake
Tufa State Reserve
In T.H. White's, The Once and Future King, a young
boy called Wart who will grow up to become King
Arthur is tutored by the wizard, Merlin, who
lives backwards through time. Merlin, with his talking
owl, Archimedes, teaches lessons by turning Wart into
"Quiet, boy. This is a difficult spell. Hmm. Let's
see. Was it 'Artemus monolus'? No, that's not right.
Wart knew better than to interrupt the wizard at a
time like this. His spells had a way of going wrong
at the best of times. But he could not help asking,
"What am I going to become this time? I hope it's
something big and fierce. Last time I almost "
"Shush! I've got it now."
With a wave of his arms and a strange incantation,
Merlin and Wart, along with Archimedes the owl, suddenly
found themselves in a place that looked very strange
to a boy used to England's lush greenery. They were
standing on sand, in a vast expanse dotted with greyish
shrubs. Directly in front of them a blue lake stretched
away for miles, with hundreds of birds swimming on its
"Oh, Archimedes," Wart said, "I don't
think we're in England anymore."
The wizard laughed and the owl hooted. "Shades
of Dorothy and Toto," Merlin said.
"Oh, never mind. That movie won't be made for
centuries yet. We better get on with our business here."
Wart was about to ask what a movie was, but his attention
was caught by movement in the lakewater.
"Look! There are little wiggly worms in this water.
Gobs of them!"
He dipped his hands into the lake, but the half-inch
long creatures slipped away.
"Taste some of the water," Merlin said.
Wart gulped down the water in his scooped palms. And
quickly spat it right back out. "Pah!"
Merlin put a hand on Wart's shoulder. "Salty and
bitter, isn't it? This is Mono Lake. A long, long way
from England; you're right about that. But a good place
to learn another lesson. Are you ready?"
"I I don't know. Not if I'm going to become
something that swims in that horrible water."
"Don't judge a place before you understand it."
And then Merlin crossed his arms and began to chant.
"Artemia monicus, alakazam, brinicus wigglepus,
Suddenly Wart felt himself shrinking. His backbone
turned to jelly. The bones in his body dissolved and
he began to grow new limbs: one, two, three...he counted
11 arms on each side before the process stopped. As
his head shrank, his eyes grew bigger and bigger. Like
some bug-eyed monster, he thought. He found he could
see in all directions at once, because his eyes stuck
out so far from the sides of his little head. And then
he discovered his tail.
It was great! The tail was almost as long as the rest
of him put together. When he thrashed it to one side,
it made his upper body swing in the opposite direction.
It was tricky to move around, coordinating the 22 legs
as oars, and the tail as a rudder. He found himself
swimming in loop-the-loop circles and then upside down,
staring up at the light sparkling on the surface of
It was then that Wart realized that he felt no need
to surface and take a breath. And while he was digesting
that fact, he also became aware that he was steadily
digesting food. He had been constantly swallowing bits
of tiny plants as he swam.
"Well, boy, what do you think?"
"Wha ? Merlin, is that you?" Wart looked
closely at the feathery-looking creature swimming beside
"Hold still, boy, you're making me dizzy watching
you. Not that you swim any less crazily than the rest
of these brine shrimp."
"Is that what I am?" Now swimming in more
of a straight line, Wart noticed that the water all
around was crowded with shrimp. "Merlin, what are
those couples doing? Is that a dance?"
Merlin chuckled. "You might call it that. Hmmm.
You're a bit young for this part of the story. Let's
just say that when a male and female brine shrimp, um,
get married, they swim around together in a sort of
dance, sometimes for days."
"I'm not so very young. I'll bet the round things
inside the clear pouches on some of the shrimp are eggs.
Right? Those are the lady shrimp, huh?"
"Good deduction, boy. That lady will probably
give birth to babies from that pouch soon now. Odd thing
is that later this season she'll have more eggs, but
she'll just release them to sink to the lake bottom.
They'll lay there until next spring before hatching
out, all on their own."
"How will the babies find their mother, then?"
"Never will. Won't need to. In fact, all the shrimp
you see here will live their full lives before another
They swam together in silence for awhile, until Wart
said, "Merlin, we're in Mono Lake now, right? Why
doesn't it taste awful anymore?"
"Because you've become a Mono Lake brine shrimp;
something unique, even within the illustrious family
of shrimps. One of the only creatures on earth that
can stand this salty, alkaline "
"Alkaline? What's that?"
"A solution high in hydroxyl ions, such "
"Oh, don't confuse the boy." The new voice
belonged to Archimedes. Wart looked up and saw the owl
gliding above the water surface. He appeared oddly distorted,
seen through the water. "'Alkaline' is 'soapy,'
Wart. That's all you need to know. You're in a big soapy
soup. Not many creatures can stand such water."
"Not many? Why there must be thousands of us just
right here close by. And the lake looked enormous. If
"I mean not many kinds of creatures. In fact,
you brine shrimp and some flies are the only animals
found in this lake. You can have it, too, to my mind.
When are we leaving here, Merlin? I'm getting salt-spray
in my feathers."
"What's that?" Merlin, asked, absentmindedly.
"I wasn't...drat, where'd Wart get too? Archimedes,
can you see him?"
"No. There are so many of you swarming around
that it's hard to keep track of who's who. Why don't
you just use some magic and...WATCH OUT!"
Wart had wandered off, following a female shrimp, hoping
to find some way to talk to her, when suddenly a dark
shadow blocked the sun. He looked toward the surface
and saw two giant bird legs kicking through the water.
And then the female he had followed was suddenly gone,
grasped by an enormous beak. Wart back-pedaled furiously,
trying to avoid being caught by that massive beak himself.
The bird pecked again and again at the water. Dozens
of shrimp disappeared as he watched in horror.
But there was safety in numbers for Wart. Realizing
that, he calmed a little. Even though the bird had eaten
so many shrimp, the water around him still looked crammed
with others. It was as though the loss of a few individual
lives meant nothing at all.
Suddenly Wart felt very lonely. It dawned on him that
he no longer heard Merlin's voice. He called out, "Merlin!
Come get me out of here. It means a lot to me if I'm
eaten. I want to be a human again. Merlin...!"
"Well, you almost did it that time," the
owl said, scolding the wizard. Wart looked up at the
familiar voice. He was lying on the sandy beach, dripping
wet. The wizard, also wet and bedraggled, was wringing
out his long beard.
"Oh, blast and be bothered! If that gull hadn't
swallowed me whole...do you know how difficult it is
to cast a spell from inside a gull's throat?"
"Merlin," Wart said, "I didn't like
being just one little shrimp among millions."
"Well then, you learned something. Good! You know,
there are more than 'millions' here; about 4 trillion,
to be exact. That is 4 followed by 12 zeroes. Yet, oddly,
someday people who drive by this lake will look out
their car windows and think the whole place looks dead."
"Drive? Car? What ?"
"Never mind. It's time to go. Stand up, Wart.
Are you ready?" He crossed his arms, preparing
to cast the spell.
"I guess." Wart turned for a last look at
the lake. "All those lives," he said quietly.
"I wish I could have talked to her."
And then the three visitors disappeared. And the shore
of Mono Lake was quiet once again.
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