Species Distributions in Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Part 1- Coral Reefs

This blog post was brought to you by the amazing technology that is the Video Home System.  After 10 minutes of figuring out how to hook the VHS up to the smart TV, I could finally watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid, for research of course!  But why?!

Now that my VHS is hooked up, I can watch ALL my Disney videos. Don’t forget to rewind!

Remember that fan theory hypothesis from last year regarding the link between Frozen, Tangled, and The Little Mermaid?  In short, Rapunzel and Eugene were observed going in to Arendelle for Elsa’s coronation, thereby linking the two movies with a classic Disney Easter Egg.  We know that Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea when their beautiful vasa sank in a violent storm.  The hypothesis goes that this ship is the SAME as the one Ariel loots for treasure at the beginning of The Little Mermaid.  But given that each movie uses fictional cities, are the timelines and geographic locations congruent to link the movies?  Fans used information about period clothing, architecture, landscape, and politics to piece together that Frozen took place in Norway, Tangled in Germany, and The Little Mermaid in Denmark.

Denmark may be a reasonable hypothesis for the location of Eric’s kingdom; it would be easy to bring in a French chef (to sing my favorite Disney song of all time Les Poissons), and both the actual Little Mermaid statue is in Copenhagen and Hans Christian Anderson was from Denmark.  But we really need to know if the wildlife were consistent with northern Europe and/or the North Sea!

There are really two questions here: where is Eric’s kingdom, and where is King Titan’s capital?  I’m going to assume that merpeople have magical powers that let them swim super-fast, meaning that the capital could be anywhere.  But that assumption cannot be applied to Sebastian the crab; since his home is in the capital, he would need to live near Eric’s kingdom to make so many frequent trips between the two locations (and would make them faster in the aquatic locomotor posture than the overland posture, according to this research).  Thus, I make the assumption that King Titan’s capital must be near Eric’s kingdom.

The “Under the Sea” scene highlighted the high biodiversity supported by coral reefs. Source: The Walt Disney Company

“Under the Sea” at the Coral Reef
Now that you are singing Sebastian’s ode to the wonders of sea life, you may recall he sings it in the middle of a coral reef.  Coral reefs are made up of coral polyps, a marine invertebrate which uses calcium and bicarbonate from seawater to build a hard exoskeleton where the fleshy animal lives inside.  Reefs build up as free swimming coral larvae attach themselves to structures, then begin to excrete their exoskeleton.  Coral reefs are known for their high biodiversity, both due to the number of coral species within the ecosystem, but also the numerous algae (giving corals their bright colors as they live symbiotically), invertebrates (ie- crustaceans, snails, octopi, etc), fish, sharks, and turtles.

Coral reefs tend to form in shallow and clear water because the algae that live within the coral polyps are photosynthetic.  The algae need light to penetrate the water so they can make energy for themselves and the coral.  In return, the coral provide nutrients to the algae.  Corals also have a narrow range of preferred water temperature between 17-34 °C (63-93 °F).  Thus, corals are often found along continental shelves and in the equatorial region of the world.  Given this geographic distribution, Sebastian could not be singing to Ariel off a Scandinavian coast; thus Triton’s capital must have been equatorial!

Worldwide distribution of coral reefs, except probably missing deep-sea reefs. Source: NOAA

Or was it?!  Corals have also been found in deep-sea environments, where light does not penetrate (up to 6km under the water surface) and temperatures can reach -1 °C (30 °F).  These corals may be either reef building hard corals, or soft corals.  There’s not a lot of information on deep-sea coral because they are difficult to study in their environment, yet biodiversity in deep-sea coral communities can be high, similar to shallow water corals.  One reef building deep-sea coral is Lophelia pertusa, and has been found near the shore of western Norway in the Norwegian Sea.  It is unknown if this coral occurs in the North Sea (our hypothesized location for King Triton’s capital), or if this is missing data because current identification methods require visual inspection of corals (I wonder if eDNA methods could aid in detection).

So this exercise in using the coral reef scenes from The Little Mermaid didn’t rule out the North Sea (and nearby Denmark) as the location for the story, mainly because corals have a broader distribution and wider ecological niche than often discussed.  I guess I’m going to need another post about individual species distributions from the marine life featured in the film; stay tuned!

The reef building coral Lophelia pertusa off the coast of Norway. Source: ARKive



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