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A Mermaid’s Words…

By: Aileen Li

What do you think a mythical mermaid would sound like? With their fishy tails and alluring songs, it wouldn’t sound quite as clear as in the typical movies, like Ariel and her friends, even if you were underwater, right next to one.

“You could still make out what she is saying, but it would sound fuller with less clarity,” Jasleen Singh, a student at Northwestern University in Evanston II, says (Prillaman). Even if mermaids ever existed, and if they did sing, the sounds they produced might sound similar to other marine creatures in the ocean. The study of the human ear is what will explain why.

Sound travels in mechanical waves, a disturbance/vibrating object that moves and transports energy through a medium. A medium is a material that sound can travel through (e.g vapor, liquids, and solids). Like a ringing church bell, the collision of atoms or particles move back and forth, spreading the sound with them. It is often described as “a rippling pattern of waves” (Prillaman).

Because mermaids are “part-fish,” they would likely act, see, and sound like marine animals. Most marine animals “hear in a way very similar to humans”, says Colleen Riechmuth, a biologist at University of California, Santa Cruz (Prillaman), and that means mermaids would, too. That is because these creatures have cochleae. Mermaids also might adapt hearing structures that are more like aquatic animals. They would also have eardrums and ear bones, just like us, though functionality wouldn’t be quite as good.

When you enter underwater, the liquid plugs your ears. That makes the waves directly vibrate through your skull, making you depend on the vibrations in order to hear. The process also works in air, but studies prove that water fits better. The process works better because the water and your skull have similar densities. We start hearing when sound waves first enter the outer ear and travel all the way through a narrow passage called the ear canal, and it leads to the eardrum. Once the waves hit the eardrum, it starts to send vibrations to pass through three connected bones, the bones being the malleus, incus, and stapes. One of them taps on a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear, called the cochlea. The motion caused by the vibration sets moving fluid throughout the ear. Since we also depend on our hair-like cells to hear, they need to move. Fluid is just the perfect thing to do that. As it passes by, it bends thousands of those cells, which converts the vibration to nerve impulses. At last, the auditory nerve then sends the signals to your brain.

Because the water is basically acting as earplugs, it is very difficult to figure out where a sound is coming from underwater to most humans. Compared to land, the sound waves travel much faster in water than in air due to the structure of the molecules being closer together.

There is almost no room for any time difference between the waves hitting both of your ears. That is why the result of the noise makes the water sound very full, almost like it is surrounding you.

Some whales have fat in their lower jaw that helps direct sound to the bony part of their ear.

This fat has a “special chemical composition that makes it really suitable for transmitting acoustic waves,” says Laela Sayigh, a marine biologist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Other marine animals, like seals, have convertible ears. On land, their ear holes can open and pick up sound waves traveling in the air. Underwater, the air tissues swell up, plugging the holes. It helps transfer sound to the cochlea.

If humans had those ear features, we could hear a mermaid’s songs more easily. But if mermaids developed those, then it will take their vocal systems up to the next level.

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