On Thursday afternoon, a photograph of a car trailing a massive stream of snot and also possibly eels began appearing on Twitter. It was a horror show — and the people had questions. Like, what in the world happened? And does insurance cover slime damage?
Fortunately, the Oregon State Police and marine biologist Andrew David Thaler had answers. (Thaler’s were considerately assembled in an on-point FAQ entitled “Your car has just been crushed by hagfish: Frequently Asked Questions.”)
It turns out, the eel-like creatures are not, in fact, eels. They’re Pacific hagfish — primitive jawless fish that are sometimes called slime eels for the mind-boggling quantities of goo they produce when they feel threatened — like, say, when the truck transporting them tipped over in a five-car crash on Thursday afternoon. The accident sent 7,500 pounds of hagfishes sloshing over an Oregon roadway, dousing nearby cars. Gesundheit.
No major injuries were reported from the crash except, of course, for the hagfish. They were en route from the hagfish fisheries of the Pacific Northwest to the plates of foodies in South Korea, the Oregon State Police report. But now, they’re in the mucus-covered hands of the fire department that was tasked with cleaning up the mess.
It won’t be an easy job. Hagfish goo is a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the gills of a hungry predator. It’s the main defense mechanism for the toothy, bottom-feeding invertebrates, which more typically can be found scavenging for carcasses on the sea floor. They also can apparently tie their bodies into knots to escape predators — and to extract themselves from their own goo.
The mucus is made up of two main ingredients: a sugar-coated protein called mucin, and coiled-up spools of thread that are kind of like spider silk. When a hagfish feels threatened, it releases a mixture of the mucin and the thread, which unravels to create a kind of elastic, slimy mesh. Combined with seawater, the slime can apparently expand to 10,000 times the volume it started at.
The US Navy is a big fan of hagfish slime. Navy scientists, like materials engineer Ryan Kincer, are trying to synthetically re-create its fibrous threads to use in bulletproof vests. It could also be leveraged for “firefighting, anti-fouling, diver protection, or anti-shark spray,” Kincer said in a news release. “The possibilities are endless.”
For these hagfish in Oregon, though, it looks like they’ve hit the end of the road.