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Lately, I've again pondered how mermaids could move on land. I know certain fish, like frogfish, devilfish, and even batfish, as well as mudskippers, have developed fins that work as feet.

However, I'm pretty sure that would be ineffective, as seals do something similar and they are painfully slow and lack the agility they have in water. This is without the added problems of a human torso that must be held up in order to not hamper movement, which would ironically add an awful lot of weight in one place, which would also hamper movement!

Long ago, I pondered the idea of mermaids standing up on their fishtail, using their strong tailbones and fins to hold themselves up. However, the positioning required for this to work may make the tailfins less effective for swimming, and such a walking arrangement would be slow and awkward compared to our own, as well as incredibly exhausting. It just doesn't seem workable.

Then we get to slithering. Snakes do this, but guess what else does? Eels! It's been well established that eels can and do go on land, absorbing oxygen through their moist skin and gills, and can survive for extended periods out of water. It's possible that slithering mermaids could move quite well on land, but the aforementioned issues with a human upper half could prove me wrong.

Finally, the only other options seem to be:

  1. Manipulation-If a mermaid can manipulate men as a siren does, then she can get someone to carry her around. Alternatively, some smart thinking, pheromones, or magic could enable them to influence or control something for a free ride.

  2. Crawling-It's not the best, but it works.

  3. Gliding/flying-If they can glide like flying fish, or maybe even fly, it would allow them to circumvent the troubles of land travel

  4. They just don't bother-They live in the sea, they eat in the sea, why would they go on land?

My question is, How Could Mermaids Feasibly Move Effectively On Land?

Specifications:

  1. Feasible methods of transportation should be adaptations, specifically physiological or behavioral adaptations. The former would be like a mermaid developing fins that can be used as feet, the latter would be utilizing

  2. By 'effectively,' I mean the mermaid moves in a timely manner. The main problem mermaids and seals have on land is a lack of speed and agility, which makes them vulnerable. The transportation methods should thus account for this, as otherwise they are extremely vulnerable on land. However....

  3. Feasibility is key. Some of the possible methods mentioned above are outlandish, sure, but when it comes to effective locomotory methods on land I understand being half-fish would be a severe limiting factor. If a method wouldn't work, or if it could work but would almost certainly never develop, or if it would work just fine, I would appreciate that the best answer say that and explain why.

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Slight frame challenge here, but...

Fins (really flippers) that work as feet.

Yes, I know you discounted this in your question, but I suspect you haven’t researched that as much as you think you have.

You specifically call out seals as an example of this. There are two issues with this:

  • True seals don’t have flippers that work as feet (they have to just kind of hop or scoot along on land, and look absolutely pathetic while doing so), so they’re not a good example.
  • Sea lions (the stereotypical ‘circus seal’) and fur seals, who do have flippers that work as feet, actually have almost none of the issues you mention.

Addressing your specific concerns in order:

They’re slow on land.

They won’t set any land speed records, but sea lions are by no means ‘slow’ on land. They’re more than fast enough to avoid most predators, and absolutely fast enough to be predators themselves. The exact speed varies by species, but the average sea lion can actually run faster than the average human (average human running speed is roughly 10 miles per hour, if we’re being generous, while the average (across species) for sea lions is roughly 15 miles per hour) over short distances (we still win at endurance running, but humans beat essentially everything at endurance running, so that’s not a great point of comparison).

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-TkUOvuuNE for an example, the sea lion easily keeps up with the zookeepers walking alongside him. You can find similar videos with search terms like ‘sea lion running on land’, though that’s the best I’ve found on Youtube that really showcases their terrestrial mobility.

It would impact their agility in water.

Actually, not really. At least, not any more than putting a human torso on top already does (humans bodies are horribly inefficient for swimming, and replacing everything from the waist down with a fish/cetacean/pinniped body doesn’t really help). Sea lions, despite being better on land than true seals, can actually outmaneuver true seals in the water in some cases. This is because sea lions rely on their robust, muscular flippers for propulsion and control, while true seals swim more like cetaceans or eels do, relying on movement of their whole body.

The human torso would add too much weight.

Maybe. This is not really that different from any other centauroid (or pseudo-centauroid) body plan. THe front limbs would have to be more robust, and more musculature would be required than for a normal quadruped body plan (yes, sea lions are quadrupeds), but that shouldn’t matter much, because a normal sea lion weighs 600 to 800 pounds, while the human torso is maybe 150 pounds.

In practice, the solution to this is to make the upper body as light as possible, which would actually improve agility in the water as well. Realistically, this will become an evolutionary balancing act, as hands without sufficient strength are just a waste of energy while growing, but too much strength would impact weight too much. The example of the development of birds is probably a decent parallel here (too much weight, and they can’t fly, but they need strong enough bones to not be killed outright just from someone sneezing in their general direction).

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for sharing your knowledge, I appreciate your correction! I will definitely be taking your excellent points into account. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 19, 2021 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer, I accepted it due to the great amount of thought put into it, its relative ease of execution, and the fact it dovetails nicely with the other answers I plan to use, such as the one on dancing like a ballerina! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 22, 2021 at 2:37
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Presuming a mermaid weighs about as much as an adult female human, they can be adapted to walk on their hands:

The Guinness World Records world record for the Walking on hands - farthest distance in 8 hours was set by Sarah Chapman (UK) who walked a distance of 5,000 m (16,404 ft) on her hands in an 8-hour period at Glastonbury, Somerset, UK, on 3 June 2002.

Sarah Chapman walked 3.1 miles on her hands, without any special adaptations.

For adaptations, the most obvious would be help in walking "forward" on your hands; our tendency is to walk in the direction our back (and back of our head) is facing, which makes it difficult to see where you are going. Being able to comfortably turn your head 180 degrees (like an Owl can) would be a useful adaptation. Stronger arms would be useful. Also, arms that can rotate better to put the hinge of the elbow facing the other direction might be useful.

I would give the mermaid the ability to flip to a tail stand on land, to get the height to see a decent distance, and to easily, without strain, walk on their hands and be able to see in the direction of travel; for hand-positioning (where they are "stepping".)

Given the adaptations; this could be as fast as walking, and there's no particular limit on distance; just like there isn't for walking.

In fact, if you want sensible limits, adult well exercised arms are about the same as the legs of children of some age. Aboriginal children can and do walk 20 miles a day.

It might seem weird for them to walk on their hands, but it probably would not seem weird to the mermaids. It's just what you do. They can even make themselves good gloves designed for hand walking, to protect their hands.

(Edit: I originally said "with strain" when I meant to say "without strain")

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting, thank you! Not what I was expecting, or what I was thinking, but I will give this proper consideration, thanks for your thoughtful answer! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 18, 2021 at 19:50
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Legs

Legs are a very effective way of getting around on land, which is clearly seen by the fact that it is the main method of terrestrial locomotion among both vertebrates and arthropods

Mermaids are nothing new. Ichthyocentaurs are a clear example of mermaids with legs, as are many depictions of tritons

In terms of realism, there are many aquatic animals with legs, such as salamanders, beavers, and penguins. Penguins are also quite humanoid in posture, so it seems like quite a good comparison

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Walking on their hands is certainly the easiest explanation on the face of it. You could simply say that's how they do it and leave it at that; it's fairly logical and quite suitable if you don't want to get into it.

However, if you want to be precise, there are some issues with that. While some people are obviously very good at walking on their hands, it takes a lot of practice and a lot of balance. I, for example, cannot walk on my hands, nor do I need to. The average mermaid, as you said, lives in water, eats in water, and has no need to go on land. Unless your mermaids are habitually traveling over land, there is no reason for them to have the adaptations necessary to walk on their hands. Besides the adaptations mentioned in regards to head rotation and elbow position, extensive shoulder modification would be necessary for habitual hand-walking. The human pelvis is highly specialized for bipedal walking, including proper support and carriage of internal organs. The human body is not designed to be inverted for long periods or on a regular basis, which doesn't mean that it can't be, but it does mean that you need a good reason for the mermaids to go that route. See these pages for info on the human pelvis and on the risks of being inverted (just hanging, not including joint issues from reversed gravity)- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5545133/ https://www.healthline.com/health/hanging-upside-down#whats-the-max

The other problem with hand-walking is in terrain. There is a reason that no land animals have their heads between their legs. If your mermaids have human proportions, their heads will hang to about the level of their elbows when walking on their hands, meaning that even something like stairs would be challenging for them simply because their heads are in the way. If your mermaids are simply walking down the road, that's not much of an issue, but if they live in semi-wild areas, they're going to have trouble. Living in the water, they are also going to face much more sand, mud, rock, and marsh than most people do. Even with our advanced balance (which I'll come back to), our long legs, and our high vantage point, humans generally avoid traversing loose sand, slick mud and rock, and deep marsh because it's a pain in the behind to get through. For a mermaid walking on her hands, these terrains would be incredibly difficult, both because she can't well see what's coming up or how to navigate it and because her head is already in danger of being whacked on the topography or lost below the surface.

Balance is another factor in both rough and fair terrain. Humans, besides having specially evolved features to assist in bipedal locomotion, have arms we can windmill wildly to help us keep our balance. Even when we walk on our hands, we can use our legs to help steady us. A mermaid cannot. Even if she has incredible balance from years of practice, she's going to have a terrible time remaining steady on anything but a flat road. Additionally, because she doesn't have independent legs, she'll have to have abs of absolute steel just to get herself upright in the first place. Humans, when getting up on their hands, will usually swing one leg up first, to create the momentum to lift their other leg into position. Unless a mermaid has assistance, she's going to have to lift her entire body off the ground in a plank position and then raise it with the sheer force of muscle power, or do some kind of worm dance to heave her back half up into position. Not impossible, but again, not a first-time sort of thing.

If you want a realistic, effective, biological means of land locomotion for your mermaids, the best way to go about it is probably to modify them to account for all these limiting factors and just go with hand-stands. It will require physiological alterations that would have taken a very, very long time to develop (and so must have been selected for over millennia) and which might change the appearance of your creatures though. Since, however, this is a work of fiction, you could simply ignore or hand-wave any or all of these concerns.

I think the most realistic way that mermaids would move over land, given that they should have no regular need to, would be for them to slither like eels and octopods, and would do so for roughly the same reasons. If, for example, a mermaid got caught in a tide pool or needs to get from one lake into another. It would be slow and probably ungraceful, but it would also work better in the areas it is likely to be necessary. While hand-walking doesn't work well in wet sand and mud, belly-slithering is perfect for those conditions.

In a world with mermaids, it's also very possible that those mermaids have some kind of magic or siren song that would make outside intervention possible. Maybe they cloud men's minds to do their bidding, carrying them across great distances. Maybe they have an ancient kinship with another mythical beast like the centaur, the unicorn, or the dragon, which they are able to leverage for aid. Maybe they have a mystical connection with wild beasts and can call on them in times of need. For a semi-biological explanation, the mermaids could have a sort of tranquilizing venom they use to stun large animals like moose, bison, or horses, then drag themselves up onto the backs of these stupefied beasts and ride them like zombies. Heck, maybe they have giant frogs as pets and can ride them about whenever they feel like it, or have sleighs pulled by crocodiles.

In terms of a classical mermaid- ie, one without wings, without four legs, and with a single-column tail- there just isn't a good way for them to move on land. That's why there aren't myths about mermaids on land. If you are willing to modify the basic mermaid body, or if you are willing to simply say "magic" and move on, the options are limitless.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful answer, it is much appreciated! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 19, 2021 at 5:08
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Dance like a ballerina

enter image description here

The merfolk merged their legs, to put a nice smooth skin on them, to be able to swim faster. The feet however are still in there.. when the tail fins developed, the foot was pushed to the middle of each fin and narrowed, but the ankles remained separated and their muscles were preserved, even strengthened, to enable flipping movement.

All your mermaid needs to do is trim her fins a bit.. order a pair of tailor made ballet shoes and go practice. Arms are still present, so balance will be no issue. You can't run on spitzen, but it looks elegant ! Merfolk should be beautiful, making them dance on land would preserve that beauty.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting concept, I can see you put a lot of thought into this! Thanks, I will consider this! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 19, 2021 at 5:06
  • $\begingroup$ Thx for the appreciation @Alendyias, success with your project, I like it... note: standing still needs skill.. in all images I found illustrating spitzen dancers, they show the two feet at a 90 degree angle. That is done for balance obviously, but merfolk may have an issue with twisting the ankle to the side ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Dec 19, 2021 at 12:23
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Why not crutches? A mermaid could easily find and fashion reeds into rigid crutches suited to her body size, and she could use them similar to how a team walks in a three legged race. Middle leg first. Made up of fin folded in one direction to make a kind of landing surface with grip. Then using some clever balance and strong arm muscles, swing one or both of the outer crutches.

Barring magic like Luca where a mermaid just forms human legs, she could have two legs that join together to form a fish half. They could have scales on all surfaces but those that touch, giving the illusion that they are one limb when held together. Some clever joints or muscles that grab scales or hold the legs together could make a rigid structure of two legs similar enough to the central fin without losing the mermaid vibe totally.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ooh, very nice answer! Thanks and welcome to the site, much to think about here! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 21, 2021 at 22:34
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Why try to walk without legs when you can roll?

I’ve said this before about seals and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time: just roll. Seriously! Why do they waste so much energy bouncing on their belly to cover a short distance when’s they can just roll on their side. Seals have no excuse for being unable to roll, I’ve seen them spin in place in the water!

Your mermaids are no different. They even have a human torso which means they have the muscles and flexibility for it. Sure the fins might get in the way but if they’re foldable there should be no problem. In fact, rolling might even be better for mermaids that have been dry for too long. By rolling themselves into water (even a puddle) they will make themselves moist again in no time. No need to crawl into the water until they are submerged.

Now, you might say that rolling isn’t terribly comfortable. Well neither is crawling or walking on your bare hands. Mermaid scales would even make this more bearable. It’s not that elegant of a method of locomotion but it’s efficient. Mermaids planning to move on shore might want to take a few classes and exercises in rolling. Something to think about.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this is definitely something to think about! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 21, 2021 at 22:33
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They ride.

sidesaddle

https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/horse-sea/

They ride side saddle. Their mounts come down into the shallow water to get them and then go back in to drop them off. The mermaids do not come down off their mounts on purpose. If one falls off, the mounts will kneel like a camel and let the mermaid pull herself back on.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, I did not know that was part of the mermaid mythos! I will have to consider this new revelation. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 21, 2021 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ I derived the solution experimentally by taping my legs together and trying to ride a simulated horse. Not sure if it is part of any mythos. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 21, 2021 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, well then, thanks for your effort! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Dec 21, 2021 at 22:31

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