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Milton Love answers: how does a hagfish even live?

A hagfish at the Vancouver Aquarium
A hagfish at the Vancouver Aquarium
Wundoroo (CC by nc/sa)

This past weekend we had marine bioiogist Milton Love on to talk about his new book:Certainly More than you Wanted to Know about the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. Among the many things discussed were hagfish, the horrifying eel-like thing you see above. Milton told host John Rabe hagfish aren't ugly, they're also gross: each hagfish produces a nauseating amount of mucus-slime. So much so that--if left alone--it could fill an entire aquarium with the gunk. If you aren't grossed out yet, you aren't alone. One Off-Ramp listener, Steve Finkel, wrote in to say:

I'm in the lab working AND listening to Off-Ramp and just heard the first part of the interview with Milton Love....a question comes to mind.  Why don't the hagfish suffocate on their own mucus?

Since we're not experts, we forwarded the question to Milton Love himself. Here's his response:

Regarding how do hagfish avoid clogging their own gills - one hypothesis is that they don't avoid it, rather when their gills are mucous coated they may also be able to breathe through their (non-heavily-mucous-covered) skin - an ability that their competitor species likely do not have.

So there you have it. Thanks to Steve for writing, and to Milton for answering. Slime on!

[Photo taken by Wundoroo via Flickr]