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What the Heck is a Hagfish?

Read 4 slimy facts about the hagfish

hagfish_NOAA
© NOAA Photo Library

Let’s be honest: not many people would have hagfish on their list of “most charismatic marine species.” They are slimy, they eat dead things, they have rows of tooth-like structures straight out of a horror movie.

But arguably their strange and slimy existence is exactly what gives them their charm. In a sea of chipper dolphins and mellow sea turtles, the hagfish swims along, slick and jawless, living its life.

Here are four facts about this weird, wonderful and … weird fish.

They don’t have jaws

Although they look like eels, they’re a completely different class of fish. Hagfish are in superclass Agnatha, which also includes lampreys. Hagfish are primitive fish, meaning they haven’t changed much since they first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. They are the only known living animals that have a skull but not a spine, and their skeleton is made of cartilage, similar to sharks, skates and rays.

They are really, really slimy

Hagfish have dozens of glands along the body that secrete a slime made of sugars and proteins. When these protein strands meet the saltwater, they expand into thick blankets of slime. According to Ed Young of The Atlantic, the slime is about 100,000 times softer than Jell-O (what a visual!). This slime is used to evade predators—it’s not easy to move or hold onto a slippery fish in the midst of a pool of slime.

They aren’t picky about food

Hagfish won’t turn up their noses at dead animals. They are known to dive headfirst—literally—into dead and dying animals. They use their teeth-like mouth rakes made of keratin to scrape tissue from the carcasses (another great visual, you’re welcome). But they don’t even need to do that to get their fill—they can absorb nutrients directly through their skin. Scavengers like hagfish play an important role in recycling nutrients from dead animals back into the ecosystem. They’re a common sight soon after whale falls, for example.

They have some … unique skills

The more you read about hagfish, the more you realize these slippery, carcass-eating, jawless fish are one of a kind. To keep themselves from being ensnared in their own goo, hagfish can tie a knot with their eel-like bodies and slide it from head to tail, squeegeeing off the slime. They can also “sneeze” to clear the slime out of their faces. Their soft, nimble bodies are also able to squeeze into crevices half their size.

You don’t have to love hagfish slime or the fact they eat animals from the inside out. But you do have to admit, these guys are pretty wild!

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