Sadly, a flatbed truck dumping 3400kg of live hagfish onto a highway in Oregon will not be the weirdest story of 2017. It will not even be close. Still, the situation warrants some kind of scientific explanation, since it isn’t every day that the mucus of a living fossil destroys a Prius.
Image: Oregon State Police
WKRG reports that yesterday, local authorities in Lincoln County, Oregon were alerted of an overturned truck on Highway 101. The flatbed had ostensibly spilled slimy hagfish over the road, severely damaging one unlucky Prius. No one was injured physically, at least. The psychological damage can’t be quantified.
Hagfish (class name Myxini) are found all around the world in the deep sea and around continental margins, living at depths of 18-900m. Despite their nicknames — “slime eel” and “snot snake” — these creatures are neither eels nor snakes.
“[Hagfish] are primitive jawless fishes with an eel-like body,” deep sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler told Gizmodo. “You can immediately tell you’re dealing with a hagfish if, rather than a jaw, it has a horrifying tooth-lined rasping opening where its mouth would be that looks like something out of HR Geiger’s sketchbook. Also, if there’s slime, it’s a hagfish.”
According to Thaler, the Pacific Northwest has a pretty active hagfish fishery. This particular shipment of hagfish was bound for South Korea, where they are considered a delicacy.
The obvious question here is, what’s up with all that mucus? Do hagfish hate modern highway infrastructure or harbour some sort of vendetta against Priuses? Apparently, the hagfish uses slime for self-defence against predators or alternatively, for hunting prey.
“The slime provides protection and helps isolate food,” Thaler explained. “Hagfish have been observed escaping from sharks by choking them with enormous amounts of slime. When they feed on a carcass, the slime pours out, covering the carcass and preventing other scavengers from encroaching on their food.”
In this heat… what is this going to start smelling like in the next few days?? pic.twitter.com/3FqSwXeSMP— Oregon State Police (@ORStatePolice) July 13, 2017
Though it looks gross, hagfish slime is actually something of a wonder material. Because it’s made of protein and sugar molecules known as mucin, hagfish mucous doesn’t dry out and harden over time — it stays all gooey. But that doesn’t mean the mucous is weak, in fact, quite the opposite. Hagfish mucous also contains thread-like proteins that are incredibly tough, so much so that researchers are trying to figure out how they can use the slime to stop bleeding in accident victims, or make sustainable fabrics for clothes. Even the US Navy is interested in engineering it for defensive materials against missiles.
The humble hagfish produces a sticky slime to defend itself from predators, as well as to hunt for its own food. Now a team of Swiss scientists has figured out the physics behind how the hagfish can use the same slimy substance for both purposes, according to a new paper in Scientific Reports.Read more
While the recent hagfish slime ordeal may seem surreal to the average bystander, Thaler wasn’t all that fazed.
“Honestly, this is a refreshingly normal story with a weird cast of characters,” Thaler said. “It’s nowhere near as bizarre as everything else that’s happened this week.”