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Miracles of Weird: The Hagfish

The hagfish, also known as the “slime eel,” “snot eel,” or simply “gross,” manages to survive at the bottom of the ocean despite lacking the most basic elements of fish physiology.

More amazing than what the hagfish has in its bag of adaptations is what it’s missing. Unlike every other fish but the similarly disgusting lamprey, it does not have a jaw. Instead, it has a horrifying set of tooth-like barbs that close horizontally onto a meal. The hagfish also lacks eyes, having instead “eye spots” that are thought to be reminiscent of the first light detection organs in the animal kingdom. Perhaps most peculiar, the hagfish is the only animal to have a skull but not a spine.


Instead of a jaw, the hagfish has rows of tooth-like structures which close horizontally rather than vertically. Yes, exactly like the alien from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher (2003) (Nature Films Network).

Despite its apparent anatomical deficiencies, the hagfish possesses a few unique feeding adaptations that are truly fascinating. Often feeding on carrion, the hagfish can latch onto a dead whale, tuna, or errant Loch Ness Monster with its mouth and then tie itself into an overhand knot. It slides the overhand knot down the length of its body and uses it to push against the carcass. This affords the hagfish leverage that it couldn’t create by simply swimming backwards. Once the piece of flesh has been ripped off, the hagfish uses the point of entry to burrow inside of the animal and eventually eat its way out. Yes, also exactly like the alien from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher (2003).

The video below shows the hagfish using the overhand knot maneuver to free itself from its captor’s hand.

The overhand knot tying ability of the hagfish makes this observer hope we’ll someday find one in a complete Cat’s Cradle and/or Jacob’s Ladder formation.

Perhaps the most disgusting trait of the hagfish is its ability to rapidly secrete a thick slime from pores all over its skin when it is attacked by a predator. The thick slime is so sticky that it will clog up a predator’s mouth, causing the shark, ray, or adventurous human to quickly lose interest.

The video below shows how a hagfish uses its rapid slime generation to give his foe a mouth full of nasty.


The hagfish’s nasty batch of adaptations have served them well for a long time. Scientists call the hagfish a “living fossil,” since its form has not changed in 300 million years. The longevity of the hagfish’s physiology brings to mind the age old expression – slow and disgusting wins the race!

Is the hagfish the nastiest beast of the deep? Tell us your favorite unsightly sea dweller below.

Source: National Geographic, NewScientist

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  1. Jesse Rebock says:

    This’s pretty awesome. I love (weird) animals, and especially hate the briny deep. Plenty of reasons to remain a land-lubber if you ask me.

    I’ve always heard about lampreys and hagfish, but this was the most informative thing I’ve seen on ’em. However, as a contendor for unsighlty sea dwellers, I offer the Giant Isopod ( ).

    Thanks but no thanks, I’m good staying the hell out of the water.