This is disgusting on first sight, but really, really cool!

Researchers have found that hagfish—a sea creature that looks like an eel but isn’t—absorb nutrients through their skin and gills.

Hagfish are pretty gross to start with.  They scavenge the sea floor looking for dead bodies. When they find one, they enter the body and eat their way out. And, according to Science Now,

…not with any sort of politesse, either. When they can’t pack enough flesh into their tentacle-lined mouths, hagfish absorb the carcass’s nutrients right through their skin.


This isn’t unusual in the marine world, says Science News, but it is for this type of creature:

Plenty of marine animals without backbones can feed through their skin, but no one had demonstrated the power in a species so close to fish and modern vertebrates…

(There is argument whether hagfish are true vertebrates because they possess the skull but not the spine required, but that’s another discussion.)

The researchers, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tested this using live Pacific hagfish skin and gill tissues. Again, from Science News:

Then researchers exposed the outside of the tissues to varying solutions of two amino acids and checked the other side of the tissue to see how much of the nutrients passed through, and under what circumstances.

The tissues took in the substance, and as Ed Yong writes on Discover, the researchers

…found that a hagfish’s skin can absorb nutrients faster than its intestines!

Testing on real, entire, live hagfish is proving to be challenging, but it is very likely that these resourceful creatures are encountering high levels of dissolved organic nutrients inside their corpse dinners.

Gross, but clever!

Image by wundoroo/Flickr

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