Monday, November 17, 2008

Mermaid Invasion

How did sailors ever mistake the manatee (Trichechus manatus), a. k. a. "sea cow," for mermaids? We've spent some time at sea and in Florida and we've never been close to making that mistake! Although a fine and gentle creature, it would take considerable quantities of grog to transform a manatee into anything approaching Daryl Hannah in Splash.

Photo Credit (manatee): USGS - Sirenia Project

Occasionally, mantees are spotted along our coast as they move north in the spring with the warming water and again as they retreat south in the winter. Mantees are not insulated as are other marine mammals and cannot survive the winter in chilly waters. The only mantees found in the United States this time of the year are the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), which can be found in coastal waters around Florida or up rivers in warm springs.

Recently, what we've been spotting along the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest Audubon Center is neither a manatee nor its partially-clad fantasy version. However, what we've been seeing does share the name lonely sailors bestowed upon the manatee. Combleaf Mermaid Weed (Proserpinaca pectinata) has become more prominent within the shallow waters along the edge of the swamp. The US Department of Agriculture shows this plant is native to the coastal marshes from Newfoundland to Texas as well as well as Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The USDA shows Combleaf Mermaid Weed mainly in the coastal plain of South Carolina as does the South Carolina Plant Atlas.

"According to Gray, the genus name Proserpinaca was a name used by Pliny for a Polygonum meaning 'pertaining to Proserpina.' The name was transferred to the present genus because of its ability to adapt to different habitat conditions. The species epithet pectinata derives from the Latin 'pect(in)' meaning 'a comb' referring to the leaves." (

Combleaf Mermaid Weed can grow under the water or above the water and is distinguished from other mermaid weed by its leaf arrangement - single (deeply pinnately divided or comb-like) and alternate on the stem. Although numerous online sources list the habitat of this plant as coastal marshes, ditches, bogs or lake edges, we have not been able to locate more specific information regarding the plant's habitat requirements. Knowing the plant's requirements for water depth, soil pH, sunlight, etc. would likely help us determine the cause for the increased presence along the boardwalk.

If you can point us to a source for the Combleaf Mermaid Weed's habitat requirements, please post a comment or contact us in the swamp!

Images (mermaid weed) by Mark Musselman

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