The importance of being Aquaman, or how to save the Atlantean from his briny fate

This is an update and repost of our follow-up article on the science of Aquaman, revised and expanded. 


Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1 DC Comics.

Yesterday, I challenged you to consider how the greatest hero in the DC Universe would fair if forced to survive in the real world. The result was a hypothermic, brain-dead lump of jerky with brittle bones, forced to suffer through constant screams of agony even as he consumes sea life at a rate that would impress Galactus. In short, the ocean is a rough place, even for Aquaman.

But this is Southern Fried Science, and we’re not here to trash the greatest comic book hero of all time without offering some solutions, too. I went back to my comic books and my textbooks to assemble an Aquaman with a suite of evolutionary adaptations that would allow a largely humanoid organism to rule the waves, trident triumphantly raised.

Essential assumptions

Many people commented that Aquaman is not human, he is Atlantean, and thus is not bound by human limitations. This is wrong on at least two counts. First, in most iterations, Aquaman is half-human, which means that Atlanteans must be similar enough to humans, both physiologically and evolutionarily, to produce a viable hybrid. While there may be some minor differences between us and the children of Atlantis, functionally speaking, we’re the same. Second, these are not issues that plague only humans. Whales get the bends, amphibians freeze to death, fish need to regulate their internal osmolality. These are the problems inherent in being alive in the ocean, Atlantean or otherwise.

Read More

The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman

This is an update and repost of our seminal article on the science of Aquaman, revised and expanded. 


Aquaman. DC Comics.

Aquaman. DC Comics. A rational response to seal poaching is to lob a polar bear at the aggressors.

Aquaman may not be everybody’s favorite superhero, but since his creation in 1941, he has been among DC’s most enduring icons. During the Golden Age of comics, he held his own against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Silver Age Aquaman was a founding member and eventually leader of the Justice League. His powers, tied to the ocean, forced writers to create a compelling, complex hero with explicit limitations. In the early days, when Superman’s strength was practically infinite, and Batman’s brilliance was unmatched, Aquaman had to become more than just a superhero, he had to be a person.

If Superman existed to show us how high the human spirit could fly, and Batman to show us the darkness within even our most noble, Aquaman is here to show us the world that triumphs in our absence. The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land. Aquaman has. Through this lonely ocean wanderer, we can experience a world that we can never truly command. In many ways, Aquaman was stronger than the Man of Steel and darker than the Dark Knight. He knew loneliness that the orphan and the alien exile never could.

Even though Aquaman had to fight harder, endure the jokes of other, less interesting heroes, and find relevance in an ecosystem hostile to the humans that had to empathize with him, Aquaman was never forced to confront the truly horrifying consequences of life in the ocean.

The penetrating cold

Aquaman is, for all intents and purposes, a marine mammal. With the exception of a healthy mane in later incarnations, he is effectively hairless. As a human, we would expect his internal body temperature to hover around 99°F, or about 37°C. Even at its warmest points, the surface temperature of the ocean around the equator is only about 80°F/27°C. At the poles, ocean temperature can actually drop a few degrees below freezing. In the deep sea, ambient temperature levels out around 2 to 4°C. The ocean is cold, and water is a much better thermal conductor than air. Warm blooded species have evolved many different systems to manage these gradients, including countercurrent heat exchangers, insulating fur, and heavy layers of blubber. This is what a marine mammal that can handle cold waters look like:

Elephant Seal. NSF, photo by Mike Usher

Aquaman is not just a human, he is an atypically uninsulated human. If the man has more than 2% body fat, I’d be shocked. In contrast, warm-water bottlenose dolphins have at least 18 to 20% body fat. Anyone who SCUBA dives knows that, even with a 12 millimeter neoprene wet suit, after a few hours in 80°F water, you get cold. Aquaman, lacking any visible insulation, should have slipped into hypothermia sometime early in More Fun Comics #73. He is built for the beach rather than the frigid deep.

Jason Momoa is not a man blessed with an over-abundance of “bioprene”.

Read More

The Science of Aquaman: Understanding Dead Water

Update: legendary oceanographer Dr. Kim Martini stops by to set the record straight on the challenging subject of internal waves. Her comments in bold. 

It has been a long time since I’ve made an entry into our long-running, world-famous, Science of Aquaman series. The last few runs have been heavy on high adventure, but light on ocean tidbits for me to nerd out on. I don’t like to force ocean fact into comic fiction unless the opportunity presents itself.

So, with the newest run of Aquaman, starting with issue #50, focusing around a villain named Dead Water, I thought it was the perfect moment to talk about some physical oceanography. And then…

Dead Water. From Aquaman #51.

Dead Water. From Aquaman #51.

My hat’s off to Dan Abnett, who beat me to the science punchline. If I had to explain the phenomenon of dead water in a single tweet, it would have been pretty close to this. Well played, sir. Well played.

So what is dead water and why does it make maneuvering a vessel so challenging?

Read More

The incredible biodiversity of Aquaman: the grand finale

Aquaman #31 variant cover. Art by Mike Allred.

Aquaman #31 variant cover. Art by Mike Allred.

We’ve traveled far, this last week. From gentle basking sharks gliding across the surface of the North Sea to titanically tiny worms dwelling in the deep. The variant cover for Aquaman #31 is a fantastically diverse sampling of real ocean organisms, many of them not only profoundly weird but also almost entirely unstudied. Mike Allred’s is a small taste of the unknown still waiting to be explored.

I saved the best for last, including my favorite squid and scale worm. Before we dive into these final identifications, let’s take a moment to review.

Read More

The penultimate installment of the incredible biodiversity of Aquaman’s variant cover

aquapurged5We are approaching the home stretch, with the second to last installment of our tour through this amazing Aquaman cover. Have you been following along? How many have you guessed so far?

If you haven’t been following along, you can catch up with the previous installments, below:

13. Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

429px-Hippocampus_bargibanti3

Pygmy Seahorse. Photo by Jens Petersen.

seahorseI started my career in marine science working with seahorses, so these goofy, thoroughly un-fish-like fish, hold a special place in my heart. All seahorses are pretty weird, but pygmy seahorses might be the weirdest. These tiny animals, barely 2 centimeters long, live exclusively on gorgonian corals, their lump profile allows them to blend perfectly into the backdrop. Their bulbous protrusions will assume the color of their host coral.

Read More

The incredible biodiversity of Aquaman’s variant cover: Part four of a six part trilogy.

aquapurged4Welcome to day four of our delightful tour through the weird, wonderful creatures on Michael Allred’s incredible Aquaman cover. It’s all fish today!

Since we’re at the halfway point, now seems like a good time to reflect on why this cover matters so much. I’ve been a fan of Aquaman for a long time, and for all the amazing visuals in the latest iteration of our Atlantean hero, the deep sea remains noticeably underrepresented. Comic books mirror life and it is rare to see deep-sea creatures feature in art, let alone popular art. To have so many deep-sea organisms featured prominently on a piece of genre-crossing pop art is a rare and welcome opportunity to share my love for fangtooths, vampire squid, vent worms, monkfish, fringeheads, and isopods with a new and diverse audience.

Downward with the bestiary of barotollerant glory!

Read More

The incredible biodiversity of Aquaman’s variant cover: Episode 2

Welcome back to another exciting installment of the incredible biodiversity of this incredible Aquaman cover. Today we’re investigating species 4 through 6, where we’ll meet one of my favorite mid-water fish.

aquapurged2

fangtooth4. Fangtooth (Anoplogaster cornuta)

With the largest tooth-length-to-body ratio of any fish, the fangtooth has earned its menacing name. Unfortunately, this intimidating creature barely reaches 18 centimeters in length, hardly the massive, Batman-swallowing maw illustrated to the right. Fangtooths are among the deepest swimming fish. They can be found as far as 5000 meters down, though they are more common in the midwater (200-2000 meters). Read More

The incredible biodiversity of Aquaman’s variant cover

Aquaman #31 variant cover. Art by Mike Allred.

Aquaman #31 variant cover. Art by Mike Allred.

Aquaman. Wow. Artist Mike Allred has seriously outdone himself with this incredible variant cover to Aquaman #31, featuring a 75th anniversary tribute to Batman as well as an incredible pastel array of deep-sea creatures. What truly amazing about this cover is that each one of these animals is a real living denizen of the deep right here, on Earth Prime. Sure, the scale might be a little off, and it’s unlikely that a scale worm could swallow a Bat-thyscaph, but the salient details are uncanny. Join me on a tour of the 18 wonderful animals featured on this sure-to-be epic installment of Aquaman’s ocean-spanning adventures. Today we’re looking at the first three, including one of my all time favorite marine organisms. Read More