Hagfish slime

Hagfish are strange creatures that live in the ocean.

They look kind of like an eel – long and slithery. Although they have a skull, hagfish have no backbone or jaw.

Three-hundred-million-year-old hagfish fossils have been found, and from what scientists can tell they have changed very little in all of that time.

The strangest thing about hagfish is their defense against being eaten. When a bigger fish like a shark tries to gulp down or take a bite out of them, the hagfish squirt a whole bunch of slime into the water.

The goop is so thick and sticky that predators gag on the goo. It can even kill big fish like sharks as the gel clogs up their gills, which they use to breath underwater.

Scientists analyzed the slime and found that it is made of very tiny threads that trap seawater – about twice the width of a human hair. The hagfish have glands along their skin where the threads are stored tightly in balls, like a ball of yarn. In less than half a second the hagfish can squirt the threads into the water. The threads are made of keratin, the same stuff that makes your fingernails.

To keep from choking on its own slime, the hagfish will sneeze or tie itself in a knot to keep the goop from dripping onto its face.

Hagfish are the vultures of the ocean, eating dead fish by burrowing into their bodies with a series of small teeth. They can even absorb food through their skin.

It’s believed there are about 76 different species of hagfish.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.