Everyone loves an underdog and the hagfish is perhaps the ocean’s biggest underdog when it comes to looks. This scavenging eel-like creature has no jaws and a wriggly saggy body whose most notable attribute is producing two gallons worth of slime in minutes. (All that slimy protein clogs the gills of any predators stupid enough to take a bite.) Another disgusting tidbit about the hagfish? They actually sneeze out slime through the nostrils to avoid choking on it themselves. Another feature that doesn’t win them any popularity contests is that they’re the so-called “vultures of the sea,” feasting on whale carcasses and whatever else it finds decaying on the ocean bottom.
But despite all their truly icky characteristics, hagfish are an evolutionary marvel. In 1991, a 300-million-year-old hagfish fossil revealed that its biology has stayed roughly the same since the Carboniferous period. Scientists debate whether they actually belong in the vertebrate category, because they have the unique characteristic of not actually having a backbone. (The most recent research suggests that hagfish lost their spines along their evolutionary adventure.) Another feature that sets hagfish apart is that most living vertebrates have opposable jaws, while again hagfish does. Instead, they get by wresting huge chunks of flesh off carcasses by using four sets of surprisingly effective fangs.
There are an estimated 76 species of hagfish living in cold water, both shallow and as deep as 1,700 metres. About 12% of hagfish species face an elevated risk of extinction, according to the IUCN, from overfishing and bycatch. Even though we might not want to cuddle a hagfish, this primitive animal plays a key role in the ocean ecosystem, particularly by cleaning the seafloor of waste. So this Hagfish Day, hug a hagfish (in your mind).