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Would a Hagfish By Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

A new species, Epatretus strickrotti, is named for the Alvin pilot who captured it

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It’s not hard to figure out how hagfish got their name, since they aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Slithery, skinny, coated in gooey slime, and often found wriggling and eating in the guts of dead whales, most people probably don’t want to be associated with them. When Alvin pilot Bruce Strickrott captured a specimen of the worm-like fish during a dive in the cold, inky Pacific depths in March 2005, he recalled thinking it was “cool ... but in a hideous sort of way.”

About a year later, he learned scientists wanted to name it for him. It turns out that the fish he spotted swimming at a depth of 7, 218 feet (2,200 meters) during an oceanographic expedition south of Easter Island was the first hagfish captured from a hydrothermal vent site. Morphological studies and genetic analyses confirmed what researchers had then suspected: The hagfish was a new species, and one of the deepest-dwelling of its kind.

Suddenly, Strickrott felt not repulsed but nearly paternal about the 18-inch (45-centimeter) fish he withdrew from the depths.

“It’s a feather in my cap,” Strickrott said of the announcement of his namesake hagfish, Eptatretus strickrotti. “It’s recognition from researchers for my contributions to the advancement of science.”

An article announcing the new species, by Peter Møller of the Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen and W. Joe Jones of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), was published in the February 2007 issue of the science journal Biological Bulletin.

What's in a name?

The naming initiates Strickrott into a unique fraternity of least a half-dozen pilots of the deep-sea submersible Alvin whose surnames are now intertwined with species of jellyfish, worms, nematodes, and slugs. Like explorers who name rivers and mountains for their dedicated guides, grateful biologists occasionally christen newly discovered species for the pilots who have safely and skillfully navigated them around ocean depths.

The 2-inch (5-centimeter) -long ctenophore Bathocyroe fosteri was named for Alvin pilot Dudley Foster, who collected the first specimens in 1978 from the Atlantic Ocean. Paul Tibbetts, the pilot who in 1988 captured a new type of mussel in the Pacific, was acknowledged when biologists named the shelled mollusk Punctabyssia tibbettsi.

“Without Alvin pilots, many oceanographers could not get their jobs done, and we want to recognize the commitment of these dedicated people,” said Jones, a genetics specialist at MBARI who was in Alvin with Strickrott during the hagfish’s capture.

“We saw this little thing swimming like a worm and I told Bruce, ‘There is no way you are going to catch it,’ ” Jones said. Strickrott—who has logged more than 1,600 hours and 200 dives in Alvin since becoming a pilot 10 years ago—accepted the challenge. Within moments, he maneuvered the 23-foot-long submersible behind the wiggling fish and then vacuumed it into a canister mounted on the sub through a 0.2-inch (0.5-centimeter) -wide tube known as the “slurp gun.”

“I was like, ‘Man, this guy has skills and deserves recognition,’ ” Jones said. “The naming was a way to express our gratitude.”

Denizens of the deep

The hagfish was one of several unexpected finds during the March 2005 expedition, led by MBARI scientist Bob Vrijenhoek, to learn how seafloor-dwelling animals from one hydrothermal vent colonize other vents hundreds or thousands of miles away. The day before, Alvin pilot Anthony Tarantino had captured a 6-inch (15-centimeter), shaggy white creature scientists identified as a new family of deep-sea crab. (See "Lurking Benignly on the Seafloor, the 'Yeti' Crab is Discovered.")

It was Alvin’s first trip that far south in the Pacific in its 40-year career, said Rick Chandler, a submersible operations coordinator with the Alvin group at WHOI—which might help explain why both the crab and hagfish had not been identified before.

Nearly two years after its capture, scientists are still determining basic information about Eptatretus strickrotti—including its gender, how it can physically survive at such extreme depths, and what it eats. Unlike most hagfish, found feeding on rotting tissue of sunken, dead animals like whales, this hagfish was found swimming alone, about 3 feet (1 meter) above freshly expelled seafloor basalt.

Its body is preserved and stored in a hagfish library of sorts at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Jones said scientists have no immediate plans to return to the Pacific to collect more hagfish, but the find “reminds us that the oceans remain wide open for exploration and new discovery.”

Strickrott, meanwhile, has taken good-natured ribbing about his namesake fish from “individuals who argue that the characteristics of a hagfish seem to match the persona of some Alvin pilots.”

“Slimy bottom dweller,” he deadpanned. “How fitting.”

The 2005 Easter Microplate Cruise was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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The Hagfish Capture

Pilot Bruce Strickrott maneuvers the submersible Alvin toward a new species of deep-sea hagfish and captures it with a suction tube known as a "slurp gun."

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