Depletion of the Body Snatchers

Hagfish feed on dead animals that float to the ocean floor, playing an important role in the nutrient cycle. (Photo: © Stephen Wing)

Editor’s note: In honor of Halloween, we’re re-sharing this old but good story from 2011. 

The media won’t cut anybody a break. “Disgusting Sea Creature Threatened with Extinction.” “’Not-So-Cute’ Hagfish Threatened.” These are just a couple headlines last week in response to our hagfish press release, proving that in a world where cute sneezing baby pandas generate millions of views, sometimes an ugly craniate can provide a refreshing change.

Let’s face it, not every part of nature is cuddly and adorable. Sometimes it’s … well, for lack of a better word, icky. Enter the hagfish. This super-flexible and super-slimy dynamo has a palette that puts Homer Simpson to shame.

There are over 70 different species of this ancient fish, which have not changed that much over several hundred million years. They have no bones, four hearts and a copious amount of slime. They have also perfectly evolved to be the vultures or hyenas of the bottom of the ocean — feeding on the carcasses of animals that float to the bottom. If you have not seen them at work on a whale carcass, click here and have your mind blown.


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The voracious appetite of the hagfish makes it a sort of janitor of the ocean floor. And with all that indiscriminant eating of dead stuff, they also return important nutrients back to the ocean. It’s a dirty job, but hagfish love to do it.

Although rarely seen by humans because they survive on the ocean floor, these living fossils are facing a variety of threats from people, including overfishing and bycatch. A recent study by the Global Marine Species Assessment Project for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has determined that 20 percent of hagfish species are at an elevated risk of extinction.

Of the 76 species assessed, one was found to be Critically Endangered, two are Endangered, six are Vulnerable, two are Near Threatened and another 30 were found to be Data Deficient according to the IUCN Red List. The paper, which was published this month in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, also found that hagfish populations in Australia, the southern coast of Brazil, the East China Sea, the Pacific Coast of Japan and coastal Taiwan were of particular concern.

Despite providing a crucial service for the ocean, there are no conservation measures or legislation to protect hagfish anywhere. I guess there is no love for a slimy little bottom feeder — even one that has four hearts.

Kevin Connor is CI’s media manager.

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  1. Morgan says

    “I guess there is no love for a slimy little bottom feeder — even one that has four hearts.”


  2. Pingback: 5 Things You Didn’t Know Sharks Do For You | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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