Hagfish Houdinis: Biomechanics and Behavior of Squeezing Through Small Openings

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Hagfishes are able to squeeze through small openings to gain entry to crevices, burrows, hagfish traps and carcasses, but little is known about how they do this, or what the limits of this ability are. The purpose of this study was to describe this ability, and to investigate possible mechanisms by which it is accomplished. We investigated the hypothesis that the passive movement of blood within a hagfish’s flaccid subcutaneous sinus allows it to squeeze through narrow apertures that it would not be able to if it were turgid. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed videos of Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) and Pacific hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii) moving through narrow apertures in the lab. We measured changes in body width as the animals moved through these openings and documented the behaviors associated with this ability. We found that hagfishes are able to pass through narrow slits that are less than one half the width of their bodies. Our results are consistent with the idea that a flaccid subcutaneous sinus allows hagfish to squeeze through narrow apertures by facilitating a rapid redistribution of venous blood. In addition, we describe nine distinct behaviors associated with this ability, including a form of non-undulatory locomotion also seen in snakes and lampreys. Our results illuminate a behavior that may be a critical component of the hagfish niche, as a result of its likely importance in feeding and avoiding predators.


This article was originally published in Journal of Experimental Biology, volume 220, in 2017. DOI:10.1242/jeb.151233

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