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Fishin' for Facts: Hagfish

Photo courtesy of T. Frank


Celebrate the beauty of ugly on Hagfish Day!


Scientific name: Myxinidae (and *Eptatretidae)

There are 67 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?

Well, 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.  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!

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 pores on its side, slime cocoons the hagfish inside a clever, if not disgusting, shield. 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)

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 of a chunk of flesh from its dinner.

  • Other fantastic things about hagfish...

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.

  • Threats: 

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 "hagfishskin boots" had limited appeal? Little is known about their populations, breeding...etc. which means scientists cannot determine how this fishery might affect hagfish populations.

    (Slime photo courtesy of Gene Helfman/

Hagfish photos courtesy of T. Frank


Citation: Musgrave, Ruth A. Hagfish. Fishin' for Facts. WhaleTimes, Inc. ( 2011

Want to learn more about hagfish and hagfish research? WhaleTimes has interviewed these fascinating scientists about hagfish:

Dr. Douglas Fudge studies hagfish slime
Dr. Jeffrey Drazen vs hagfish
Dr. Gene Helfman, fish expert   

Plus, Will Hagfish Fasion Save the Planet? Find out.

Don't forget to celebrate WhaleTimes' Hagfish Day every third Wednesday in October


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