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Monday, May 2, 2011

Overlooked Species Theatre presents: Hagfish

Consider the hagfish.

But do so from a distance. Or at the very least, wear gloves.

Also, don't imagine it burrowing into your chest cavity to feed on your decomposing flesh. That's what it does to the corpses of dead marine life, of course, but...just don't think about it, OK?

If you have access to medications that quell feelings of nausea and/or panic, take those too.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So, probably the best thing someone can say about hagfish is that they do not try to be anything that they are not.

They look like something that probably burrows into dead and dying things to eat them from the from inside out, and by golly that's exactly what they do. 

Hagfish are best known for being extremely foul to us two-legged types. Handling one is an epically gross experience for even steely-stomached fishermen - not only do the 'slime eels' writhe around, moving their hideous mouthparts, twisting into knots, but they also produce huge amounts of tremendously sticky mucous. How much? If you have no use for the current contents of your stomach, check out this video.

So yes, hagfish do not score well on the charisma scale. But it's a good thing they're around, because they do some important things - specifically, they eat dead things. Quickly and efficiently. And not only with that nightmarish mouth, either - a very recent paper suggests that they may absorb nutrients through their skin. Check out this video of the decomposition of a gray whale carcass, and note the number of (surprisingly graceful) hagfish on the scene.

YouTube video uploaded by Kzelnio

Hagfish are an ancient group of animals, with and they occupy a very interesting evolutionary position. For one, they have a skull - but no backbone. I could go into greater detail, but Southern Fried Science did a much better job than I could hope to do, so I'll point you over there instead

There are dozens of species of hagfish out there, several of which are here on the Pacific coast. Apparently, there have been experimental fisheries for two, the Pacific hagfish and the black hagfish. Who in their right mind would want to catch these things, you ask? Well, while fishermen may not be overly enthusiastic about dealing with them, there is a market for human consumption, and for their skins, which are used as 'eel leather' for high-end fashion products (similar to the stingray skin that we highlighted a while back).

So consider the hagfish: a hard-working animal that does the work that few other things do, and certainly does not try to be anything that it is not. That's worth something, I guess.

Just keep them the hell away from me.

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