Hagfish slimy superpower—‘ancient’ protective design
Many people in western nations enjoy a meal of ‘fish and chips’ without giving a thought to the type of fish they are eating. Around the world, many species are used for this, both bony types (e.g. cod, haddock, halibut, plaice) and cartilaginous ones (e.g. rays, dogfish, and other small sharks). However, it is safe to say that few readers will have eaten hagfish!1
Hagfish, sometimes called slime eels, have very distinct biology from the fish we typically eat, termed gnathostomes because they possess jaws. Hagfish are eyeless, jawless fish (agnathans) and are grouped together with lampreys as cyclostomes (‘round mouth’). Hagfish are somewhat bizarre carrion-eating fish; they have spiky mouths but lack true bones or teeth. The ‘hag’ in their name betrays an ugly appearance (and indeed they’re not very photogenic) but their habit of producing slimy mucus also adds to their ‘yuk factor’.
When threatened or attacked by a predator such as a shark or seabird, the hagfish deploys its super-effective defensive mechanism. Dozens of glands that run along its body release copious amounts of mucus which rapidly interacts with the sea water, making masses of gloopy slime—often totally incapacitating the would-be predator (see box).
Jawless fish supposedly represent a primitive stage in fish evolution. Hagfish and lampreys are claimed to have evolved from armoured jawless fish that lived as long ago as 490 million years, even though such fossils have not been found in rocks supposedly that ‘old’ within the evolutionary/long-age scheme.
Contrary to evolutionary expectations, cyclostome fossils that have been ‘dated’ at 360 million years look remarkably ‘modern’, very similar to jawless fish alive today.2 Now scientists have been further surprised by being forced to conclude that the hagfish slime protection system is more ‘ancient’ than their evolutionary mindset had led them to believe.
A newly described fossil, found in ‘Late Cretaceous’ limestone rocks in Lebanon, is unquestionably of a hagfish. Allegedly 100 million years old, the 31 cm (12 in)-long fossil has been named Tethymyxine tapirostrum and was reported in the prestigious journal PNAS.3 The genus name means ‘slimy fish of the Tethys’ (an alleged ancient sea) while the species name means ‘snout of a tapir’. Wonderfully preserved in full body outline, the lack of an oral sucker (around the mouth), dorsal fins and other features rule out its being a lamprey.
Many body parts and even mineralized visceral tissues were discernible too: eight pairs of branchial (gill) pouches, barbels (sense organs), teeth, liver lobes, intestine and slime-glands. What’s more, the limestone matrix surrounding the animal’s outline was found to be very distinct in its chemistry.4 The researchers are certain that this represents ‘fossil slime’. Interestingly, they acknowledge that the level of fossil preservation “suggests that [Tethymyxine] was rapidly buried.” Indeed it does.
Not surprisingly perhaps, news media were excited about this story; for example, “Chemical evidence in the fossil suggests ancient hagfish produced slime, too.”5 However, informed biblical creationists are less surprised, having almost come to expect news of this kind on a regular basis.
Sedimentary rocks in Lebanon have revealed similar things before now. A decade ago, we reported the discovery of stunningly preserved, modern-looking octopus fossils (said to be ‘95 million year old’), complete with suckers, gills and even fossilized ink.6 The conclusion we draw here is inevitable: hagfish have always been hagfish.
Such discoveries continue to surprise those who are hoodwinked by their evolutionary worldview; they expect ‘primitive’, ‘less evolved’ forebears in the fossil record, but that is not what one finds. Instead, fossil scientists (paleontologists) repeatedly dig up ‘advanced’ creatures—that is, ones with the same design features that we observe today. Not only that, it is only the exquisite preservation of these fossils which enables scientists to draw such detailed comparisons with their living counterparts, termed ‘living fossils’.7 And that level of fossil detail, in almost wholly soft-bodied creatures like octopus and hagfish, requires very speedy entombment indeed.
The choice: the Flood or evolution?
Where does the evidence lead us? To the unprejudiced, it is surely a powerful testimony to the historical reality of the global Flood of Noah in which countless billions of creatures, including this hagfish, were literally buried alive. But this conclusion is unpalatable to many people who would far rather believe the evolutionary scheme. If they ignore the biblical historical framework (a pristine special creation, cursed after mankind’s rebellion, destroyed by the Flood), people must resort to evolutionary ‘explanations’ for the origin of not only hagfish, but also of themselves.
Lead author of the PNAS paper, Tetsuoto Miyashita (University of Chicago), said: “Where we place hagfish makes a difference to how we think about our own ancestors, more than 500 million years ago.”8 Well, if evolution really occurred, he is quite consistent in believing such a thing. If, on the other hand, hagfish are merely one of the numerous types of fish which our Creator put into the oceans on Day 5 of Creation Week, Dr Miyashita couldn’t be more wrong. What a difference a worldview makes. In his book The Magic of Reality (2011), prominent atheist Richard Dawkins encourages his readers to try to imagine a distant ‘grandfather’, living some 185 million generations ago:
“What did he look like? An old man with wispy hair and side-whiskers? A caveman in a leopard skin? … We don’t know exactly what he looked like, but fossils give us a pretty good idea. … Your 185-million-greats-grandfather was a fish. So was your 185-million-greats-grandmother …”9
This poses a stark choice: am I distantly related to creatures like the hagfish, or else was my ancestor Adam, the special creation of God? Scripture is explicit: God created fish separately (Genesis 1:21–23) from people—“God said, ‘Let us make man in our image … let them have dominion over the fish of the sea” (Genesis 1:26; my emphasis). And the Apostle Paul confirmed this distinction: “For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish” (1 Corinthians 15:39; my emphases).
We can certainly appreciate and praise God for the wonders of creation, including even the slimy superpower of hagfish. But let us not fall into the error of Drs Miyashita and Dawkins, of confusing hagfish origins with our own (Romans 1:22–25)!
Hagfish slime kit
About 66 living species of hagfish are known, classified in seven genera, all within the family Myxiniformes. A report on LiveScience.com made the intriguing comment that the newly discovered ‘ancient’ hagfish, Tethymyxine tapirostrum (see main article), just like all living hagfish, was “complete with slime kit”.1 Using a sophisticated imaging technique called synchroton scanning,2scientists found solid evidence of strands of keratin,3 the same fibrous protein that is central to the slime defence system of living species of hagfish.
To evade and incapacitate a predator, the hagfish must deploy its ‘slimy superpower’ extremely quickly. When threatened, it exudes the sticky mucus from slime glands between its head and tail—70 to 200 of them, depending on the species.4 The mucus contains numerous compressed and coiled keratin fibres, each about 10 cm long.5 Once this secretion encounters water, these keratin threads ‘explosively’ unravel and expand (about 10,000 times their initial volume in a few hundred milliseconds), forming a tangled slimy, gloopy mess—up to 20 litres (5 US gallons) in one such release. It is an extremely effective deterrent against predators. After an overturned truck in Oregon, USA, dumped 3,500 kg (7,500 pounds) of hagfish onto a highway in 2017, the gooey slime even temporarily shut down part of the road; see a stunning image of this at theatantic.com.
With its amazing properties, hagfish slime has received a lot of attention from biomimetic engineers, inspired to develop useful super-materials with these properties. When engineers copy ‘nature’s designs’ they are acknowledging (whether they confess it or not) that the Creator got there first.
The evidence does indeed confirm that hagfish had a complete slime kit from the start. A kit contains a number of components, plus the maker’s instructions on how these operate together (in ordered sequence) to serve a specific function. Often there are many parts that must work together. Kits do not design or assemble themselves! Logically, then, the slime defence system of hagfish was not put together by random, mindless processes operating over deep time—rather, this ‘ancient’ design testifies to the hagfish Designer.
References and notes
- Weisberger, ref. 5 of main article.
- This is a type of X-ray scan where a high-energy particle beam is fired at the object of interest. In conjunction with spectroscopy or microscopy, useful images can be obtained.
- Related keratin proteins are found in human hair and nails, as well as animal fur, claws, horns and hooves.
- Nelson, J. S., Fishes of the World (3rd edn), John Wiley & Sons, New York, p. 21, 1994; sourced in: Hagfish, newworldencyclopedia.org; accessed 8 Mar 2019.
- Chaudhary, G. et al., Unravelling hagfish slime, J. Roy. Soc. Interface 16: 20180710.
References and notes
- Some Koreans are an exception in considering hagfish as a delicacy; Dillman, T., Slimed: Ugly hagfish yields somewhat pretty income, fishermensnews.com, 1 Feb 2013. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J., Modern-looking lampreys ‘older’ than thought, Journal of Creation 22(1):5, Apr 2008. Return to text.
- Miyashita, T. et al, Hagfish from the Cretaceous Tethys Sea and a reconciliation of the morphological–molecular conflict in early vertebrate phylogeny, PNAS, 2 Jan 2019; doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1814794116.. Return to text.
- The paper (see ref. 3, p. 2147) states: “Al, P, S, Mn, Fe, Cu, Zn, and As are markedly more abundant in the preserved tissues than in the matrix, whereas the reverse is true for Si, Ca, and Hg.” Return to text.
- Weisberger, M., 100-million-year-old hagfish complete with slime kit discovered, livescience.com, 21 Jan 2019. Return to text.
- Graham, G., Fast octopus fossils reveal no evolution, Creation 31(4):40–41, Sep 2009. Return to text.
- Batten, D., Evolutionists can’t dodge ‘Living Fossils’, Creation 33(4):42–43, Oct 2011. Return to text.
- Weisberger, Ref. 5. Return to text.
- . Dawkins, R., The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true, pp. 39–40, Bantam Press, London, 2011. Return to text.