A new paper by Te Papa researchers and their colleagues from Massey University, NIWA and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, describes not one but THREE new species of hagfish. This increases the total number species found in New Zealand waters to eight.
What are hagfish? These strange creatures, also called snot eels, lack jaws and backbones and, although they look similar to eels they are not even closely related. In fact hagfish separated from their closest living relative 300 million years ago!
Hagfish were previously thought to be scavengers but video footage taken by Te Papa researchers shows that they also prey on fish. Hagfish are a bane for fisherman because they produce an abundance of slime from the many pores on their bodies when attacked – this slime is so effective it can even even repel sharks! Check out the video evidence!
So how do you find a new species of hagfish?
Te Papa fish researchers used baited fish traps to catch hagfish from seven localities around New Zealand. Two of the new species looked so different to known species that they were immediately suspected of being new to science. Subsequent detailed analyses of their morphology and DNA confirmed that they were distinct enough to be recognized as new species. The mottled hagfish (Eptatretus poicilus), found only around the Three Kings Islands, has an unusual blotchy appearance. The blueband hagfish (Neomyxine caesiovitta), which occurs along the east coast of the North Island to the Chatham Rise, has a number of differences to other species including body length and colour and the number of the slime pores.
The third new species, the cryptic hagfish (Eptatretus cryptus) had previously been confused with the common hagfish (Eptatretus cirrhatus), hence the species name ‘cryptus’. However, its DNA sequence was found to be quite different from the common hagfish and two species aren’t even each other’s closest relatives! A subsequent examination of the morphology of the two species found that, once you know where to look, there are some subtle differences separating them.
Understanding the number of hagfish species and their abundance in our waters is essential for their sustainable management. Hagfish are eaten in a number of Asian countries and are exported, either live or frozen, from New Zealand to South Korea. Currently hagfish stocks are not regulated under a quota system and the different hagfish species are not recognised. Increasing our understanding of these amazing creatures will hopefully avoid collapse of New Zealand’s hagfish fishery, as has happened overseas.