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Fishin' for Facts: Hagfish 2013 edition

Photo courtesy of T. Frank


If you think the Hagfish is the true beauty of  Hagfish Day,  vote for it in our Ugly-Beauty contest!


Scientific name: Myxinidae (and *Eptatretidae)

There are 77 known species of hagfish within 1 (*or 2) families. (Some scientists feel it should be two families, others just one...the battle of hagfish taxonomy rages on behind the scenes...)

Depending on the kind of hagfish they are 9.8 to 39 inches (25 to 100 cm) long. However, the giant hagfish reaches 4 feet (127 cm) and weighs 13.7 lb (6.2 kg) Newly hatched hagfish are a little more than 1.5 inches (4.5 cm) and look just like an adult.

  • Where are they found?

These deep-sea creatures are found all over the world in temperate and cold temperate waters but generally not in the polar seas. Hagfish have been seen as deep as 16,405 feet (5000 m)

  • What do they eat?

What don't they eat? All hagfish species are important predators and scavengers dining on small invertebrates as well as dead and dying fish and other animals. In true hagfish fashion, it even eats with a distasteful flair. Sometimes it eats prey from the inside out by burrowing into or entering a dead or dying fish through the gills, mouth, or anus. It licks (scrapes) off the flesh and organs with its tooth-covered tongue. The hagfish leaves behind a sack skin, filled with bones. Yum!
There is also some suggestion that hagfish might use their slime to incapacitate a meal. For example, the hagfish finds a burrow (tunnel in the sand) where a fish is hiding.  The hagfish sticks its head inside, releases a bit of slime and waits until the fish is either subdued or suffocates, then the hagfish grabs the fish and swims away to dine. 

Hagfish are a popular food time for sea lions, seals, dolphins, porpoises, octopus...and people. Hagfish can be 25 to 50% of some predator's diets.

  • Highlights

Hagfish aren’t as attractive as their name implies. At a glance, they look like an eel. Take a closer look and you’ll find a (generally) 2-foot long jawless, boneless, scaleless deep-sea creature that oozes slime. Buckets of slime.  Hagfish are so disgusting, scientists quiver when they accidentally catch one. When asked to describe hagfish, one deep-sea scientist replied, “Bleeeeeccccccch!” That’s just the response the hagfish wants. Oozing from as many as 200 pores on each side of its body, slime cocoons the hagfish inside a clever, if not disgusting, shield.

The slime (made of bonded protein threads) expands when it meets saltwater. As most deep sea scientists quickly discover, a 19 or 20 inch (50 cm) hagfish can fill an 2 gallon (8 liter) bucket with slime in a matter of minutes. Just as kids avoid the classmate with snot dripping from his nose, the gross glop repulses predators. The slime may make them slippery, giving the hagfish a chance to slip away. Predators that ignore the gooey armor can actually be smothered by it.
(Photo: Gene Helfman and hagfish slime, read his interview)

Recent studies show that a hagfish controls how it releases the slime. When a predator grabs a hagfish, the hagfish only releases slime out of the pores predator has in its mouth.  The predator's gills fill with slime. The fish starts to choke and lets go, starts to gag to get the slime out of its mouth and gills. Many kinds of fish, even sharks, were observed trying to grab a hagfish, only to have the gills clogged by the slime. The hagfish remained unharmed. The predator left...probably to go home and cry to its mommy! (Okay, the mommy part isn't true, but the rest really is.) Releasing some sort of 'predator be-gone' spray isn't new to the animal world. Everyone knows to avoid the back end of a skunk (except maybe an inexperienced dog). Octopus and squid release ink. Some deep-sea crustaceans release bioluminescent spew to distract, startle, or even mark predators (so bigger predators see them glowing in the dark instead of the little crustacean). Hagfish have just taken a gooier, slightly grosser twist on the plan. De-slime, de-slime….a hagfish can smother itself with its own slime. To squeegee off the slime, a hagfish ties itself in a knot. The knot rolls down the body pushing the slime off as it moves. (Just as you’d slide your hand down a washcloth to squeeze out the water.) That knot comes in handy in another way. A hagfish uses the knot to give it leverage to pull off a chunk of flesh from its dinner.

Hagfish do not bleed when injured and those boo boos do not get infected. Scientists are investigating any possible scientific uses for hagfish and their slime. No, that doesn't mean grossing out their friends with practical jokes (though our slime activity would work for that!), some believe there may be medical uses for the slime.

It's hard to believe there's a mad dash to catch hagfish...but there Not only are they eaten by some cultures, they are the real "skin" in eelskin products -- boots, wallets, purses...etc. Guess marketing "hagfish skin boots" had limited appeal? Little is known about their populations, breeding...etc. which means scientists cannot determine how this fishery might affect hagfish populations.

The Latest:  Now scientists hope hagfish slime will become a fashion do! Read more about it: Save the Planet:  Wear Hagfish Slime!

Discover more about the fascinating hagfish, read Dr. Jeffrey Drazen's interview.

Don't forget to read  Dr. Gene Helfman's ready to be awed, amazed...and grossed out!

    (Slime photo courtesy of Gene Helfman/

Hagfish photos courtesy of T. Frank


Citation: Musgrave, Ruth A. Hagfish. Fishin' for Facts. WhaleTimes, Inc. ( 2013


Don't forget to celebrate WhaleTimes' Hagfish Day™ October 16, 2013


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