Hey! The Third Wednesday of every October is Hagfish Day!
10/17/2012: 14 Fun Facts about Hagfish by Hannah Waters
Amirite? I like to think that, as a blog that sometimes features animals, we prefer to sit somewhere between this post and Honey Badger Don’t Give a Shit. But a recent article in Wired Science spurred the need to talk about how gross the hagfish is—and I’m not even going to get into how intrinsically scary wrinkly, tube-like creatures are (Freud, have at thee!). Researchers found that in addition to eating like something from Alien, the hagfish can absorb nutrients through its skin and gills. Which comes in handy when they’ve burrowed themselves in a whale corpse.
This should have been no surprise given the already bizarre nature of the marine critter. If you told me tomorrow that hagfish are silicon-based and sit in their own Linnean taxonomic branch… well actually you wouldn’t be too far off again. The hagfish sits in their own sub-phylum in between vertebrates and invertebrates due to its having a skull, but no spine. Its lack of backbone allows it to tie itself into a knot, and then by moving that knot down its body, uses it as extra flesh tearing leverage. Ingenious! It has few aquatic predators due to a unique defense system: When threatened, they secrete a copious amount of slimy mucus from their bodies. Reports say that they can fill a five gallon bucket with mucus in a matter of minutes. Not only is it gross as all hell, researchers believe that the slime may actually prove deadly to fish if it clogs their gills. They use the aforementioned knot trick again to clean the gunk off their own bodies.
The defense is so effective, that little has changed between the earliest fossilized specimen and its modern counterpart. When most people think of evolution, they imagine that creatures are always changing towards a different, more perfect version of itself. Which is false, because sometimes an animal just works, and there is little pressure for it to change. If it’s not broke, why fix it? Conversely, sometimes species are led down an evolutionary dead end, a subject I’d like to explore another time.
Want more hagfish? Carl Zimmer has written quite extensively about them. Here are a few posts from his blog, The Loom, and a hilariously out of context quote from him added to New Yorker cartoons. You can also read about them over at P.Z. Myer’s blog, Pharyngula.
This post was brought to you by Gallium (Ga). It’s worth noting that in the comic, what can be construed as the hagfish’s mouth is actually its nostril. It only has one. Here is a hagfish mouth—YEEEEE! (From Fish Index)