Hagfish. You love them. I love them. Of all the fish in all the seas, none are more magnificent than the hagfish. Across the world, children celebrate the hagfish by making slime from Elmer’s glue, their own mucous, or just, like, something. Seriously, how is is that toddler hands are always coated in some strange, unidentifiable slime?
2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.
A hagfish in the high Antarctic? Hagfish have previously never been observed in the shallow waters around Antarctic, but a photograph from 1988 was determined this year to be a hagfish feeding on a large pile of clam sperm in shallow water. Neat!
Incidentally, the reason the photo languished for so long is that it was originally though to be a Nemertean. Because Antarctic Nemertean worms are huge and horrifying.
Big Ideas (the ecologic paradigms that hagfish shifted)
Heincke’s law is one of those ecologic principles that more often acts as a foil for rejecting the null hypothesis than as a consistent pattern in ecology. It’s most basic summary is: The further from shore and the deeper dwelling a fish is, the bigger it grows. Heincke’s law does not appear to be true for hagfish, whose size appear to have no relation to the depth at which they occur. On the other hand, phylogenetic relationships do seem to play some role in regulating body size in hagfish.
Defense and Behavior (how hagfish do the things that they do)
Hagfish are master escape artists, capable of squeezing in and out of tight spaces barely half the width of their body. This great for getting in an out of rotting whale carcasses on the sea floor, creeping into crevices, and avoiding predators. But how do they accomplish this incredible feat? Hagfish have a flaccid sinus under their skin which allows them to control the distribution of venous blood and alter their body width as they wriggle through narrow passages. Freedman and Fudge identified 9 distinct behaviors which take advantage of this adaptation, including anchoring, forming tight loops to push the body through an opening, and bending the hagfish head 90 degrees to force it through a slit. And there are videos!
The Fudge lab has been busy this year, cranking out some of the most noteworthy work on the incredible behavior of hagfish. In addition to examining hagfish motility, Boggett and friends looked into how those flaccid sinuses aid predator avoidance. The team build wee little guillotines loaded with shark teeth to see how hagfish skin protects the animal from vicious bites. In a year when a truckload of hagfish spectacularly crushed a car, the fact that this research was the biggest breakout sensation in hagfish pop culture says everything you need to know about the compelling results of this study. You can read more about this study at The Verge, Futurity, Popular Science, and plenty of other outlets.
Earlier today, the Japan Times reported that a mining tool has successfully extracted zinc and other metals from a hydrothermal vent on the seafloor. There’s not much to go on yet. We don’t know if these were active or dormant vents (though dormant doesn’t mean biologically dead). We don’t know the specific location of the experimental mine site. And we don’t know the footprint of the ore prospect. But we do know that Japan has identified at least 6 potential mining sites within its exclusive economic zone and that plans are moving forward for a commercial mining venture in mid-2020. I’ve only found one report in English and from the look of things, there’s only a press release circulating right now, but I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more about this in the coming weeks.
Japan Agency for Natural resources and Energy
We’re still watching to see what Nautilus Minerals does at Solwara 1 and how manganese nodule mining proposals in the Clarion Clipperton fracture zone are progressing but Japan’s mining efforts present a sea change in how to anticipate future deep-sea mining efforts. Private commercial ventures are dependent on the whims of the global commodities market and subject to national and international regulation. National efforts are driven by the need for resource independence. I was aware of Japan’s efforts, but didn’t realize that they were as close as they are to being ready for production.
For the last 10 years, we’ve been saying that deep-sea mining of hydrothermal vents is imminent. Well, it’s here.
We sampled two sites in Papua New Guinea where these deep-sea mussels aggregate and looked at their genes to determine if there was any population structure across this relatively small spatial scale (~40 km). We found one homogeneous population. We also looked at representatives from other ocean basins and determined that mussel populations within Manus Basin are younger than those in neighboring basins. This is a pattern we’ve observed in several otherstudiesas well.
This is not, by any stretch, a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting study. But studies like this, baseline, foundation-building studies, are absolutely essential for conservation biology.
Torben Wolff, legendary deep-sea scientist and last surviving member of the Galathea II expedition, which plumbed the Philippine Trench and recovered biological material from more than 10,000 meters for the first time in history, died in his sleep on May 2, 2017. He was 97.
Torben will be remembered for his monumental contributions to deep-sea oceanography, his commitment to international collaboration in the deep sea, and three generations of mentorship, as well as his tradition of closing deep-sea meetings with a Haka that he learned from Maori during his travels in New Zealand.
Farewell Torben. We’ll see you some day in Fiddler’s Green.
Paul J. Clerkin is a graduate researcher at the Pacific Shark Research Center of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California. Clerkin specializes in rare and deep-sea chondrichthyans and is focusing on new species descriptions and life histories of poorly understood sharks species. His thesis work is with Dr. David A. Ebert studying sharks encountered during two surveys in the Southern Indian Ocean in 2012 and 2014, a total of 126 days at sea. He has also conducted research for other projects aboard ships in the Bering Sea, South East Atlantic, Philippine Sea, and across the Pacific. He was featured in the “Alien Sharks” series on Shark Week.
This week, Travel Channel is airing a pilot for my new series, Deep Sea Mysteries (“like” our page on Facebook!). In the course of research, I visit extraordinary fishing communities to find and study rare, poorly known and even undescribed species. This show is the first of its kind, different from the Shark Week programs I’ve done in the past. It continues a focus on sharks and other deep-sea animals, but is notably (and pleasantly) more educational. There are more species, more facts, more science, and an emphasis on conservation effort.
Also, as a travel show, the series combs through the beautiful regions, interesting people and unique stories behind each expedition.