Weird Wednesday: Getting to know the hagfish

If you were to keep any sort of aquatic creature on display in your dorm room, you would probably go for a goldfish. More exotic connoisseurs might opt for, say, beta,  clown fish or even a blue tang.

Few would go for the hagfish.

Granted, few would really want a mud-colored, slime-exuding, hermaphroditic spineless eel-looking thing floating around in full display for your friends and parents to admire.

You can put as many little castles and bubble-treasure-chest things in the tank as you want, but it probably wouldn’t do much to offset the effect of its eyeless gaze fixed upon you while you sleep.

The hagfish, known scientifically as Myxini and non-scientifically as ‘slime eels,’ dwells on the bottom of the ocean floor, a freezing cold place that is home to nature’s ‘Misc. Box’ in terms of evolutionary design. (Trust me, never go looking at the ‘Deep Sea Fish’ Wikipedia page right before you go to bed.)

Reaching up to 20 inches in length, hagfish serve as the janitors/vultures of the sea, subsisting on dead organic matter and the occasional supplementary wormy invertebrate. They have no eyesight (like most bottom dwellers) and instead rely on their sense of smell and the whisker-like feelers around their mouths to track down food.

Closely related to the lamprey, hagfish lack proper jaws or teeth and utilize a rasped tongue and pseudo-toothlike ridges to tear into their meal, sort of like a geriatric zombie that’s lost its dentures.  

If the ocean floor is lacking in carcasses, the creature can go for up to seven months without feeding. Like the average college student, however, they will generally take what they can get. If your body ever ends up in the ocean, chances are that it’s going to be snacked on by an endeavoring (and hungry) hagfish. Yum.

The most unique feature of the hagfish is their ability to produce a thick slime from several skin glands. When threatened by a predator like a shark, they will quickly exude this slime, allowing them to slip away.

The shark, meanwhile, gets to experience that lovely feeling of a mouthful of mucus, similar to when you have a cold and no tissue to blow your nose with.

The human market for hagfish covers a wide spectrum; hagfish eggs and meat are served as dishes in Korea and Japan. If you’ve ever had an ‘eel-skin’ wallet or belt, it’s actually most likely hagfish skin. (No, it won’t suddenly start dripping slime. Probably.)

The ooze it secretes also has its uses, mainly as a future bio-clothing. The mucus is stretchy and highly durable, and when dried has silk-like properties.

Harvesting and weaving techniques are in development by the United States military as a more sustainable option than oil-based nylon and polyethelene clothing.

Unfortunately, even though they literally eat garbage, hagfish are hard to breed and sustain in an artificial environment, though research is still underway.

So for now, stick with the goldfish. It’ll probably make your roommate happier.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu.