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Smithsonian Magazine

Unraveling threads of bizarre hagfish's explosive slime

Biologists have modeled the hagfish's gag-inducing defense mechanism mathematically.

Hundreds of meters deep in the dark of the ocean, a shark glides toward what seems like a meal. It's kind of ugly, eel-like and not particularly meaty, but still probably food. So the shark strikes.

This is where the interaction of biology and physics gets mysterious -- just as the shark finds its dinner interrupted by a cloud of protective slime that appeared out of nowhere around an otherwise placid hagfish.

Jean-Luc Thiffeault, a University of Wisconsin-Madison math professor, and collaborators Randy Ewoldt and Gaurav Chaudhary of the University of Illinois have modeled the hagfish's gag-inducing defense mechanism mathematically, publishing their work today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The ocean-dwelling hagfish is unique for all the strangest reasons. It has a skull, but no spine or jaw. Its skin hangs loose on its

body, attached only along the back. Its teeth and fins are primitive, underdeveloped structures best described with qualifiers -- "tooth-like" and "fin-like."

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