Aug 18

Bizarre Animal of the Week: Hagfish

There are many foul and unpleasant animals in the ocean: starfish that voluntarily sick up their stomachs; sea cucumbers that release some of their internal organs through their anus to confuse predators; and parasitic barnacles that effectively castrate the crabs that they infest. But the creature that has been dubbed the ‘most disgusting of all sea creatures’ by both the media and members of the scientific community is this ugly thing, the hagfish, which seems to hold its title so proudly, so unapologetically, that it’s almost admirable.


Photo: Paddy Ryan

Quite aside from the fact that the hagfish is so wretchedly unattractive, it also has an obsession with slime. Yes, this creature is little more than a long, eel-like mucus gland. If it feels threatened, it exudes gelatinous slime – and lots of it. An adult hagfish can produce enough slime to turn a 20 litre bucket of water into pure slime in just a few minutes. This slime makes it almost impossible for predators to grab on to it. If, for example, it is attacked by a shark, the slime exuded by the hagfish can clog up the shark’s gills, usually causing it to release the hagfish as it attempts to breathe properly, as shown in the video below.

The hagfish’s feeding habits aren’t much more pleasant either. They mainly eat dead fish on the sea floor, using their toothed tongues to rip flesh away. Sometimes when feeding, hagfish purposefully tie themselves in knots. These knots form near the tail and then work up the body towards the head before forcing the hagfish’s mouth away from the prey so that some of the flesh is torn away with it. If they come across a real bonanza, such as a whale carcass, they usually enter the body through the eyes, ears or anus so they can reach the soft organs inside. And, as you can see from the picture below, their mouthparts are nothing to be sniffed at.

Epatretus stoutii

Photo: Fishindex

And then there’s the fact that the hagfish is just pretending to be a fish. In fact, since it possesses no jaw, no vertebrae and only a partial skull, it isn’t even a true vertebrate. Its eyes are so simple that it can only distinguish between light and dark. It doesn’t even have a stomach, and it can actually absorb organic matter across its skin, something that can be seen in creatures such as jellyfish and corals, but not in higher animals. The hagfish, therefore, is a relic from a bygone age, the descendants of a transitional stage between simple worm-like creatures and the first true vertebrates.

The hagfish sits in limbo, neither a fish nor true vertebrates nor anything else – a degenerate, revolting oddity. But they have graced our planet for some 300 million years now and they have barely changed one iota during that time. It’s safe to assume that the hagfish simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks about them. Which is a shame, because how can you not love something that is so unashamedly repulsive?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: