Cursed by lobster fishermen for the quantities of slime they produce when startled, these oceanic oozers secrete a white fluid which expands rapidly on contact with seawater, producing enough slime to fill a 7-litre bucket in minutes.

Sticks like glue

The sticky substance adheres to predators, forming a suffocating layer over their gills. The slime also creates problems for the hagfish itself, but it has developed a manoeuvre which allows it to escape – it knots its tail and, twisting the knot over its body, scrapes off the offending slime.

Ooze from the past

Although they look like snakes, hagfish are not snakes or eels, but belong to a unique group of animals.

They are primitive animals that have no jaws, no eyes, fins or scales. They have a cartilaginous skeleton and pouch-like gills not seen in any other living fish.

Living fossils, the species have changed little since the days of the earliest hagfish, which date back some 330 million years.

Scavengers of the deep

 

Hagfish have horny dental plates which rasp and tear into soft flesh, carrying pieces back into the mouth. A fang above the plates holds the live prey in place while it is shredded. Since they have no teeth hagfish cannot eat scaly fish and therefore they only feed on small live fish, on soft rotting carcasses or on animals that other animals have already opened. When larger food items are found, such as dead whales, hagfish have another strategy – they enter the giant corpse and eat the soft tissue out from within.

Hagfish play a vital role in recycling dead animals on the seabed and may occur at surprisingly high densities, with some areas having over 50 000 animals per square kilometre.


Species Facts

  • Hagfish have no jaws, eyes, fins or scales
  • Hagfish can produce litres of slime when alarmed – a defensive technique that can sometimes suffocate predators and other fish
  • The earliest hagfish occurred about 330-million years ago