California's Snot Snakes

Last year, 7,500 pounds of live eel-like creatures spilled all over an Oregon roadway and caused a five-car pileup. Meet the hagfish.
Worm-like hagfish make their home in PVC pipe in a tank at Chapman University in Orange County.

Last June, a flatbed truck spun out of control on U.S. 101 in Oregon, spilling 7,500 pounds of live eel-like creatures called hagfish onto the roadway and causing a five-car pileup.

Things immediately got worse: Hagfish rapidly shoot out loads of slimy goo from pores all over their bodies as a defensive mechanism to stress. The resulting slime quickly expanded and covered everything around the accident in mucus. It took state troopers hours to clear the mess. Hagfish slime doesn’t come off easily.

Nobody knows this better than Douglas Fudge, a marine biologist at Chapman University in Orange County, who has been studying these odd creatures for 20 years — especially their slime. It has potential uses in biomedical devices or to weave ultra-light-but-strong textiles (a kind of biosteel) for natural Lycra, helmets or even bulletproof vests.

Fudge encountered his first hagfish as an undergraduate, when his professor took the whole class fishing for the scavengers at Shoals Marine Laboratory, on a small island off the coast of Maine. The site of a makeshift eel trip — a plastic bucket with holes drilled into it — rising from the water with gallons of slime oozing out made a lasting impression. So when the time came for Fudge to choose a topic for his Ph.D. thesis, the hagfish was an obvious choice.

In 2016, he moved his lab to sunny southern California, where hagfish flourish in the deep waters along the coast. It’s also closer to Gregg Drilling, a geology services company that Fudge is collaborating with to adapt hagfish slime as a substitute for drilling mud, which lubricates the drill bit as it digs deep into soil and sediment. But standard drilling muds don’t work well in underwater drilling operations — exactly the kind of cold, salty marine environment where the hagfish thrives.

Worm-like hagfish make their home in PVC pipe in a tank at Chapman University in Orange County.
Worm-like hagfish make their home in PVC pipe in a tank at Chapman University in Orange County.

Often dubbed “slime eels” or “snot snakes,” hagfish might be homely scavenging bottom feeders, but they have at least one superpower: A single five-ounce hagfish can churn out one liter of the sticky concoction in less than a second. The slime is great for warding off certain predatory fish — because the goo bonds to their gills and suffocates them, they literally choke to death on snot. “From the hagfish’s point of view, it’s ‘Well, if you’re going to try and eat me, I’m going to slime your gills on the way down and make it really difficult for you,’” Fudge says.

It also requires a delicate touch when handling the easily startled creatures in the lab, since any hint of aggression will trigger a storm of slime. Fudge keeps his hagfish tank in a dark basement room at Chapman and transfers them to a plastic bucket, when they’re needed for experiments, with the help of a fishing net and plastic tubing. (The hagfish like to lounge inside the tubes, making it easier to remove them from the tank.)

Most marine animals secrete some kind of slimy mucus, but the hagfish’s slime is unique. There’s the usual protein-and-sugar mix called mucin, but hagfish slime also contains lots of very fine threadlike fibers. Those threads are coiled up into tiny “skeins” (they look just like balls of yarn) until the hagfish blasts the slime out into the surrounding salt water, where it blows up into a sticky gel that feels a bit like semisoft gelatin.

Hagfish are considered a delicacy in South Korea, which is where those ill-fated hagfish in Oregon were headed. And that snazzy eel skin wallet or belt in your closet might actually be made of hagfish skin. They even have their very own national holiday on the third Wednesday in October. So take a moment to celebrate these remarkable creatures when Hagfish Day rolls around again next fall.

Keep reading: Explore the Willy Wonka-esque Wallis Annenberg PetSpace in L.A.

Science journalist Jennifer Ouellette is a senior writer at Ars Technica and former science editor for Gizmodo.
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