What creature defies science, carries your money, cleans the ocean, and produces buckets of slime?

By Patrick Cooney

Take a look at a hagfish and see if you can find a single redeeming quality?

Hagfish

You couldn’t find a redeeming quality, could you?  I don’t blame you.  Besides looking a little like the racing snail from The NeverEnding Story, the darn thing doesn’t seem to offer much.  However, the little buggers are quite useful creatures.  Heck, even my Grandma carried hagfish in her pocket for years…seriously!

Hagfish Snail

Hagfish on the left, racing snail on the right.

Despite the clearly visible shortcomings of the hagfish, this creature is incredibly fascinating.  It defies taxonomic science, carries your money, cleans the ocean, and produces such incredible amounts of mucus from threads so fine that you will probably one day wear clothes made from its slime.

Defying Science: Grow a backbone already, will you?

In the hierarchy of taxonomy, vertebrates are easily distinguished by the presence of a spinal cord encased in vertebrae that lead to the brain and skull.  However, Hagfish are the only known animal to have a bony skull, but no vertebrae, so are they vertebrates?  Because of this peculiarity, hagfish have created a nightmare for taxonomists.

hagfish anatomy

Carrying Your Money: The 80s called and they want your wallet back.

Hagfish have such high quality skin, you just might have one in your pocket.  In what must be considered one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever, these ugly fish were very popular in the 1980s for making eel skin wallets.  But hagfish aren’t even eels, so technically, not a single eel is used to make an eel skin wallet.  I still remember my grandmother carrying a deep red colored hagfish (eel skin) coin purse around in her pocket made in the 1980s.  I explained to her that the wallet was made from a fish that produced massive amounts of slime, but she didn’t seem to mind.  Eventually though, she caved to the myth that the wallets were made from Electric Eel Skin, and therefore would demagnetize all of your credit cards.

Hagfish Wallet

Cleans the Ocean: Vultures of the sea.

Hagfish are perfectly designed to digest dead rotting carcasses.  The fish are most at home when fully immersed inside of dead animals.  In fact, they are able to absorb food right through their skin.  Despite being a disgusting way of life, cleaning up dead carcasses from the ocean floor is a necessary ecological process that reintroduces the energy from a dead animal back into the food chain…that whole circle of life thing.

hagfish on whale

Slime: Anyone need some hair gel?

If there is one thing that a hagfish is good at, it is producing slime.  Disturb a single hagfish, and you will have gallons of slime on your hands…literally.  Folks speculate that the slime is a defense mechanism used to clog the gills of any potential predator that tries to eat these little tubes of meat.  Despite being a mess to clean up, the biological makeup of the slime is increasing being researched as a viable thread for textiles.  One group even speculates you could potentially activate hagfish slime to be used as a safety airbag in a car.  But who wants to be in a car accident and get slimed at the same time?

Hagfish slime

Big Picture: The hagfish is here to stay.

It is clear that the hagfish is not the most attractive fish in the world.  However, we have shown that it does have unique and redeeming qualities that not only upend the entire taxonomic tree but also serve critical ecological processes.  You keep doing your job hagfish, and perhaps one day I will be as cool as my Grandma and carry one of you around in my pocket.

 

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