March 4, 2011

Who are you calling a hagfish?

by Heather Falconer

Myxine glutinosa: the name (almost) says it all. The Atlantic Hagfish is well known for its ability to excrete a sticky, glutinous substance from its skin — hence its more widely known moniker, “slime eel.” The hagfish can excrete enough of this strong, fibrous slime at one time to fill a milk jug, giving it excellent protection against predators. (Imagine trying to wipe a gallon of super glue off your gills.)

But it seems the skin of the hagfish isn’t just about excreting. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada have recently learned that absorption is going on, too. More specifically, as the hagfish burrows into a carcass to feed, it takes in nutrients through its mouth AND through its skin and gills. Who would have thought?

While this has been seen in invertebrate fishes, it’s the first documentation of such an system in an animal so close to modern fishes and invertebrates (hagfish have a notochord, not an actual backbone). This reseasrch isn’t just about nutrients, however. As a sea creature, hagfish also have to deal with saline levels (which can affect cell osmosis) and temperature changes. How their skin can handle these, as well as nutrient transfer, could lead to some interesting and important applications.

This “nasty creature of the sea” might not be so nasty after all! Read more about this new discovery here.

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.