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MARTHA SEZ: Flying hagfish — poetry in motion

July 20, 2017
Lake Placid News

Oregon U.S. 101 was closed July 13 when an AA Seafood, Inc., truck from Depoe Bay transporting 7,500 pounds of live hagfish, or slime eels, swerved to avoid hitting a construction truck, causing four other vehicles to collide. More than a dozen bins of its cargo spilled across the roadway, releasing thousands of writhing hagfish.

I read about this incident on Facebook and immediately entered that strange twilight land where repulsion and fascination overlap. Since then, hagfish have been on my mind. I haven't been able to concentrate on much else. For example:

If a Pacific hagfish was in your graduating class, what would you write in its yearbook?

"Don't ever change!"

This sentiment would be appropriate, since hagfish haven't evolved in 300 million years. Scientists say this just goes to show that hagfish have been a success from the very beginning. They have had no reason to change.

Perhaps the famous Johnny Tillotson song "Poetry in Motion" was written for a hagfish.

Poetry in motion

See her gentle sway

A wave out on the ocean

Could never move that way

I love every movement

There's nothing I would change

She doesn't need improvement

She's much too nice to rearrange.

That being said, the hagfish has often been called the most disgusting animal in the sea, and in fact the whole world.

Hagfish structurally resemble some of the earliest fishes. They can grow to three feet long, with vertebrae, but no spine, a cranium, but no jaws, eye spots, but no true eyes, five hearts and no stomach. The only living animals with a skull but no vertebral column, hagfish are sometimes classified as degenerative vertebrates, like lampreys. Other biologists believe that hagfish are prevertebrates, never having developed a backbone in the first place, like lancelets.

They look like eels and are quite ugly, which I guess is why they're called hagfish.

Not that you would usually see them anyway, since they spend most of their time coiled up or in burrows on the deep sea floor. The reason the hagfish has survived for millions of years, and also the reason it is so disgusting, is that it produces huge amounts of slime from 100 glands that run along its sides.

Any time a hagfish is feeling stressed, or when it wants to keep some sea carrion away from other scavengers, it releases mucus from these glands which combines with water to make about five gallons of slime within minutes. The gelatinous ooze contains protein filaments said to resemble spider web, rendering it sticky and slow to dissipate. I watched a video of a scientist reaching into a pail that contained an agitated hagfish and pulling out a quivering, elastic, transparent, semi-solid mass of slime.

When sharks or other fish attack, this slime can clog their gills and kill them.

Hagfish will go for long periods without eating, but they are enthusiastic devourers of dead sea mammals and fishes that sink to the ocean floor. They are practically sightless, but have extremely sensitive skin and a highly developed sense of smell. With raspy tongues and two sets of sharp teeth, hagfish burrow into a carcass and feed from the inside out. Sometimes they also eat live fish and crabs.

Why would a truck be transporting containers of hagfish in the first place? The answer is that some Asian foodies, particularly South Koreans, like to eat them. They probably consider them a delicacy.

When asked whether he had ever tasted hagfish, a police officer at the scene of the fishery truck accident allowed that he had not, and furthermore had no desire to, as he had been advised that the meat tastes much the same as the hagfish slime smells. Not his cup of tea. Another police officer advised that if you get hagfish slime on your clothes, you might as well throw them away.

The clean-up of US 101 took two days. One of the motorists whose car was involved in the pileup told reporters two days after the accident that there was still slime on his shoes.

"I've washed my car three times and there's still stuff underneath," he said.

In my studies, I also learned that some wallets sold as eel skin are actually made from hagfish hide, and that scientists are working on using the slime fibers to develop bullet-proof fabric. Hagfish: food, fashion accessory, body armor.

I hope I've got this out of my system. Have a good week.



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