If I Was A Hagfish Could I Get With Tall Blonds?

Almost sixteen years ago, I was at phase one of Operation Convince A Tall Blond To Get With Me. For brevity, I will refer to this as The Operation. I won’t further comment on my moves during The Operation other than to say they were real smooth. Tall blond was completely in to me. At least that’s how I remember it. However, another would-be suitor was interfering with The Operation. Tall blond did not seem to be in to him. At least that’s how I remember it. If only I was a hagfish when I first met my wife.

Hagfish can produce copious amounts of slime from 90 to 200 slime pores that run the length of their body. With these dedicated sliming glands, a single hagfish can produce over a gallon of mucus in single sliming event. The video below should convince you that the hagfish’s superpower is to produce a slimepocalypse. What should a hagfish use this power for? Create a slip and slide for friends at parties? Lubricate the chassis of a fleet of 18-wheelers hauling bourbon out of Kentucky? Defeat the forces of evil?

Hagfish choose not to get eaten by predators because with great power comes great responsibility—like not getting eaten.

Recent work by Vincent Zintzen and others video documents for the first time hagfishes choking would-be predators with gill-clogging slime. When a hagfish finds itself in the mouth of the would-be predator, the slime glands of the hagfish inside the predator’s mouth fire off. Within as little as 4 seconds, 14 different predators in Zintzen’s recorded footage (embedded below) fell victim to the slimepocalypse. Each predator, be shark or fish, “convulsed their gill arches dramatically in a gagging-type effort to clear the slime from their gill chambers.” Whether the predator was a biter like sharks and conger eels or a sucker like wreckfishes and scorpionfishes, hagfish slime prevailed.

In addition, hagfish can also use their super slime power to deter competitors. In the words of the author, “when multiple hagfish were present at the bait, the bait bag would become draped in slime, deterring other fishes from approaching the food source.”

But predators and competitors are not the only ones to feel the slimepocalypse. Hagfish are typically viewed as scavengers but Zintzen and colleagues observe hagfish preying on red bandfish (video embedded below). Upon locating a burrow, the hagfish enters and tangles with the prey using its retracting dental plates to begin swallowing the unlucky victim. At this point the hagfish waits for the victim to die and may suffocate its prey with slime, similar to the hagfish’s predators. To retract the bandfish from the burrow the hagfish knots the part of its body outside the burrow to provide leverage to both remove itself and the victim.

Unfortunately, Zintzen and friends do not document increased attraction of lady hagfish to males who produce slime. But why wouldn’t the ladies love it? During The Operation I might have faired better with other males if I was hagfish, but more research will be required to determine if I would have attracted or repelled my Tall Blond.

Zintzen V., Roberts, C.D., Anderson M.J., Stewart A.L., Struthers C.D. & Harvey E.S. (2011) Hagfish predatory behaviour and slime defence mechanism. Scientific Reports 1, 131


Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/), connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.