THE Hagfish Day Star, the Lovely Hagfish
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 do they live?
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?
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. After dining on the carcass, tThe hagfish leaves behind a sack skin, filled with bones. Yum!
A hagfish off the coast of New Zealand seems to use its 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.
What eats them?
Hagfish are a popular food item for sea lions, seals, dolphins, porpoises, octopus…and people. Hagfish can be 25 to 50% of some predator’s diets.
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.
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 or near 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.
It’s hard to believe there’s a mad dash to catch hagfish…but there is. 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” has a limited appeal, Little is known about their populations, breeding…etc. That means scientists cannot determine how this fishery might affect hagfish populations.