Answer on @Quora by @DomhnallOH to What are some really cool ways animals defend themselves? – Xochielt Sanchez
Answer by Domhnall O'Huigin:
Easily one of the most disgusting, coolest and most scientifically interesting methods an animal defends itself with is also one of the most ancient.
Theis a living fossil, pretty much unchanged for 300 million years.
That's because there isn't really a whole lot to change. Visually reminiscent of a (debate continues about how closely the two are related) it is basically a tube-like, primitive fish with a face only a mother could love:
So far, so disgusting. However the hagfish has a super power that lampreys and other primitive fish lack: the power of slime.
Hagfish have one, highly effective strategy whenever they are attacked.
They can exude copious quantities of a milky and fibrous slime orfrom some 100 glands or running along its flanks. The typical species Myxine glutinosa was named for this slime. When captured and held, e.g., by the tail, they secrete the microfibrous slime, which expands into up to 20 litres (5¼ gallons) of sticky gelatinous material when combined with water. If they remain captured, they can tie themselves in an which works its way from the head to the tail of the animal, scraping off the slime as it goes and freeing them from their captor, as well as the slime. – Wikipedia, ibid.
The disgustingness of this slime cannot be underestimated. It clogs up gills, chokes air-breathing animals and generally just uggs the place up considerable.
Oh, and: "it smells like dirty seawater and has the consistency of snot".
The science though, the science is mental and has materials scientists and biologists alike scrambling to understand how the hagfish can produce so much slime so quickly and what benefits this understanding could bring us:
The other–the really interesting one for materials scientists–produces entirely remarkable threads. These are 6 inches long, intricately coiled into a single cell that’s just four-thousandths of an inch long. That, quite frankly, is insane. As a loose metaphor, it’s like packing 10,000 years’ worth of clothes into one suitcase that you’ll then, uh, break open and throw at something that’s attacking you. – Wired, ibid.
Potentially the – presently unidentified – gluing compound contained in the slime could be used as a natural replacement for artificial polymers:
One startup company for example,*, turned to the Hagfish with the ultimate goal of developing a biodegradable polymer made out of components of the slime itself. They think the slime could be used in everything from protective clothing to food packaging, bungee cords to bandages. That’s because hagfish slime threads have some impressive properties; they might be 100 times thinner than human hair, but they’re 10 times stronger than nylon. –
And there you have it: an incredibly disgusting, incredibly cool – and potentially incredibly useful – way an ancient animal uses to defend itself.
* coolest name ever.