Research

Hagfish Escape Mechanisms

The hagfish is an eel-like creature that has not changed much in the past 300 million years in part because the hagfish is very good at escaping would-be predators. When attacked, the hagfish excretes mucins that combine with seawater to form slime. This gel-like viscoelastic fluid forms quickly and has some handy properties. For example, when stretched, the slime becomes extremely viscous. Many fish feed using a suction method, in which they thrust their jaws forward and enlarge their mouths to suck water and prey inside. This strong unidirectional flow stretches the slime, which thickens it and clogs the fish’s gills. Suddenly, the fish is much more concerned with being unable to breathe, allowing the hagfish to flee.

Being surrounded by all that slime could smother the hagfish, too, if it were not for another clever feature of the slime. When sheared, hagfish slime collapses, losing its viscosity. The hagfish actually ties itself in a knot to create this shear and slide the slime right off. (Image credit: V. Zintzen et al.; L. Böni et al., source)

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