Hagfishin’

By Jessica Leonard

Eptatretus stoutii: Pacific hagfish, “slime eels”, Myxinids, “those gross things”.  No matter what you call them, these basal animals/jawless fish are well-known research subjects around BMSC.  In ZOOL 224 (Vertebrate Diversity, University of Alberta) with Dr. Rich Moses, I learned that hagfish are the only living animals that have a skull but lack vertebrae – making these chordates actual living fossils.  Much like sharks and crocodiles from the Mesozoic, living hagfish may be quite similar to those that existed during the Cambrian explosion!  As cool as this might seem, the horrifying images circulating around the internet assured me that these beasts were the inspiration for every sci-fi alien monster movie ever created, and I had zero interest in ever coming face-to-face  with them.  But then I came to Bamfield.

Rawr!

Rawr!

Since starting in the Animal Care department at BMSC, I have become all too familiar with the peculiar particulars of hagfish life.  From pulling handfuls of slime out of their tanks to feeding them Eric’s special stewed rotten fish, to bailing out their tank covers once.. twice.. three times by dinner, the daily joys of caring for hagfish are virtually endless.  This isn’t to say that they’re high-maintenance diva animals.  No, they feel right at home in cold, dark, sediment-y/dirty places.  In the wild these beauties live on the deep ocean floor, opportunistically feeding on dead animals that have floated down like rotten manna from marine heaven.  Not only do hagfish have a low-profile lifestyle on their side, but they also have a pretty slick (pun intended) defense against predation: slime glands!  I discovered this the fun way in August when I first met “hagfish guy” aka U of A’s Alex Clifford.  He taught us all sorts of practical uses for hagfish slime: mucus jewelry, a satisfying proteinaceous snack, and even great ammo in a chilly, sticky water fight.

The adventure I tell today is due to a surplus of research demand for more hagfish and a deficit in supply; we asked Captain John to take us out hagfishin’.

Research Coordinator Eric Clelland and I were joined by Sam Guffey, another proud member of the Goss Lab at the U of A, on our adventure.  Armed with a bucket of “aromatic” fish as bait, some homemade hagfish traps, and a hopeful attitude, we hopped aboard the MV Alta and headed out to sea.

It was a gorgeous morning to be out on the ocean, and we were thankful for the sun as we prepared the equipment.

Eric and our homemade hagfish traps – It was a gorgeous morning to be out on the ocean, and we were thankful for the sun as prepared the equipement

Eric’s famous stewed fish - Each trap needed to be first baited with rotten fish and then closed up tight.

Eric’s famous stewed fish – Each trap needed to be first baited with rotten fish and then closed up tight.

The design of the traps was similar to Gee minnow traps, where the fish can get in through a small opening but can rarely find it again to leave.  When we got about 1/3 of the way across Trevor Channel, John came to the back of the boat and we began to prepare the equipment to be lowered down to ~100 m depth

 Sam, Eric, and John lowering the first anchor

Sam, Eric, and John lowering the first anchor

.  After the leading anchor was submerged, we attached our hagfish traps spaced apart from each other along the line, and watched them sink.

Attaching the traps.

Attaching the traps.

Gone!

Gone!

We then attached the trailing anchor, which would ensure that all of the traps were held down at the ocean floor.  The final touch was to attach the float so that we could locate our precious bounty!

Hrm, I wonder what this buoy is for?

Hrm, I wonder what this buoy is for?

Later that afternoon we once again boarded the MV Alta and headed out to check the traps.  Captain John began by slowly winching the line back up into the boat, stopping periodically so we could remove the anchors and traps.  As we pulled the traps back into the boat, we had our fingers crossed that we had caught a few hagfish.  Even looking at the first trap we knew we had been successful!

Sam proudly displaying his catch

Sam proudly displaying his catch.

That day we caught over 200 hagfish, and we kept 89 of them that were just the right size for our researchers.  We set the traps again that afternoon and the following morning we were even more successful, taking home 100 more hagfish!

Heading home

Heading home.

The sun had set on a fantastic couple of days at sea, and our hagfish stocks were once again full.  If you ever have a chance to see these strange creatures in real life, and even go out to catch some, I highly recommend you take the opportunity.  But watch your fingers, because even though they are jawless, they can still do some damage with their retractable teeth!

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