WARNING: THE WORDS "SPINELESS," "slimy" and "boring" all appear below. Yet, amazingly, this story is unrelated to any political campaign and will not mention any individual now holding high office.
In fact, the category here is ichthyology, and the subject is the hag-fish, 300 million years old and the animal world's version of the blind date from hell. The hagfish usually plies its trade far from fame's spotlight, but it briefly jumped into the news last month when the fossil of an ancient, wormlike conodont, which some believe is a hagfish relative, was found to be 515 million years old—40 million years more ancient than previously thought. Since the conodont, possibly the first vertebrate, has been extinct for 200 million years, the hagfish may be the oldest living vertebrate as well as a possible link to the newest—the increasingly numerous but always endangered Homo sapiens.
Alas, the hagfish—which didn't get its name because people think it's Miss America material—is a relative few would claim. Even fewer would invite it over for Thanksgiving dinner. For one thing, although classified as vertebrates, hagfish are spineless. All of them. They are incredibly slimy when agitated, emitting huge quantities of mucus to slip the grasp of predators. Hagfish, which are at home in all the oceans of the world, from 60 feet to 1,800 feet down, eat whatever dead or dying fish they can find and are happy to live off the labors of others. Many's the unsuspecting fisherman who has hauled in his line only to find his catch being eaten by hagfish. It is not an appealing sight. Hags, which can be as long as three feet, are guided toward their prey by a keen sense of smell. Boring their way in through body openings with rasping teethlike cusps, they eat dinner from the inside out. "Picture something out of Aliens," says Cynthia Klepadlo, an assistant curator at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
"The hagfish constantly eats," says Robert Wisner, a marine biologist at Scripps. "Undigested foods go through the other end, so it can eat a lot in a big hurry." Charming.
Wisner, however, questions the claimed link between hagfish and other, more popular vertebrates. "We just don't know," he says. "There are too many gaps. The hagfish body is too soft. There is no fossil record."
Besides, no hagfish has ever been known to overdraw a checking account or say anything nasty about Murphy Brown.
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