The art of knotting

posted by Stefan Siebert / on November 27th, 2009 / in Chordates

Hagfish have a skull, but no spine. They diverged from vertebrates prior to the origin of many other structures that are widespread within the group, including jaws. Hagfish are extremely important for understanding the origins of these key structures, but they are also famous for an unusual behavior—tying themselves in knots.

Hagfish have an eel-like body. They lead a bottom dwelling life and have a great sense of smell, but lack well developed eyes. When stressed, hagfish release a secretion that contains special filaments from glands along the body. When it contacts water, this secretion forms a massive slime and makes the hagfish an unpleasant bite for potential predators. To sneak out from this slimy shelter, the Atlantic hagfish, Myxine glutinosa, makes knots, which wring off the layer of slime. The knot, traveling along the body column, can provide a surface for the hagfish to push off. This enables the animal to pull its body out of the hole it makes in it’s prey’s flesh, or escape the grasp of a scientist.


Pictured above are the heads of two Atlantic hagfish, whose bodies are burried in soft sediments. They were caught in the Gullmarfjord on the Swedish Westcoast.

Photo and video by Stefan Siebert. Video edited by Sophia Tintori. “I’m learning a song for Christmas” from Jack Pleasants.