No, this isn't a scene from the set of Ghostbusters. On July 14, a truck carrying thousands of fish wrecked on Oregon’s highway, covering the road and at least one car in slime and creating surely one of the most bizarre traffic jams in history.
The culprit? Hagfish, deep-sea scavengers that look a bit like eels and are capable of generating massive amounts of anti-predator mucus at a moment’s notice. The Pacific Northwest is home to several hagfish fisheries that supply the fish to many Asian countries, including South Korea, where it is a prized dish.
Just how inconvenient is hagfish slime? Well, the Oregon Department of Transportation is currently using a small bulldozer to remove the muck from the middle of the road. (Most of the fish died in the accident.)
Of course, in its natural environment on the seafloor, the hagfish has other uses for this secret weapon. (Read seven reasons why hagfish are amazing.)
“The slime is a fiendishly effective means of defending themselves against predatory attacks by fishes,” says Douglas Fudge, a biomaterials researcher at Chapman University in California.
“The slime sets up very quickly and is incredibly good at sticking to and clogging gills, so fish typically abort their attacks on hagfishes because they can’t deal with the slime.”
But why would the hagfish discharge so much slime without any sharks around? Fudge says these animals, which he identifies as the Pacific hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii), also release their mucus when stressed. And yes, “being dumped onto a Prius counts.” (See more pictures of strange-looking sea creatures.)
It’s also likely that the truck legally carrying the hagfish in aquarium tanks were full of slime before the accident even happened, as it’s difficult to move these fish without triggering the slime response.
As a deep-sea ecologist, Andrew Thaler says hagfish are common visitors anywhere there’s free food, like whale carcasses.
“When they feed on a carcass, the slime pours out, covering the carcass and preventing other scavengers from creeping in on their turf,” says Thaler, CEO of environmental consulting firm Blackbeard Biologic.
“Hagfish are slime-spewing monsters! That's part of what makes them so wonderful.”
Actually, Thaler adds, “slime” isn’t even really the right word. (See "Hagfish Slime Could Be Eco-Friendly Fabric.")
“It's a viscoelastic filament made of microfibers that forms a semi-solid gel. It's more like Spider-Man's webbing than gak.”
There’s still much and more we don’t know about hagfish and their slime, but the closer you look, the more weirdness you’ll find. Hagfish can tie themselves into knots, they sometimes take up residence in dead bodies, and their hearts beat without oxygen.
As for their status as a delicacy, Fudge says he’s never tried hagfish meat.
“From what I hear, they taste a lot like they smell, which in my opinion isn’t so appealing."