Reprinted with permission from Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2011 Ellen Prager. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2:  Mega-Slime, Seduction, and Shape-Shifting

Within the citizenry of the sea, there are some organisms whose dull or familiar countenance hides a secret and strange way of life. Such is the case for an eel-like fish with ancient origins, a well-known and highly delectable crustacean, and an organism with impressive powers of regeneration that masquerades as an undersea log. The talent among these three marine creatures the hagfish, lobster, and sea cucumber  is impressive. The hagfish can produce an inordinate amount of slime and tie itself into a knot. The lobster is equipped with supersoaking blasters that it uses to wield a powerful potion; and when under attack, the sea cucumber has defenses that are the envy of science fiction writers. These three organisms are definitely among the oceans’ most fascinating and surprising of residents.

The Hagfish

To know a hagfish, is to love a hagfishor maybe not. A good friend of mine in Maine ( you know who you are) has developed a new type of phobia; she is convinced that upon entering the Gulf of Maine for a leisurely swim, she will be the target of hagfish. I have tried to convince her that as long as she is not dead or nearly so, they should not be a problem, but she remains unconvincedhagfish have become her worst nightmare and with good reason.

Hagfishes are blind, jawless, scaleless, and finless fishes with a relatively flexible cartilaginous skeleton somewhat like that of sharks and rays. They resemble eels with a flattened oar-like tail, thick, slippery skin, and one singular nostril above their mouths, around which are several stubby, barbed tentacles. Interestingly, they also have four small hearts.

An adult is typically about half a meter (18 inches) long, though they have been known to reach a scary size of 1.4 meters (4.6 feet). Hagfishes live throughout the world’s oceans at the bottom, where it is relatively cool. A few species inhabit shallow waters, but most are found deeper, down to at least 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of hagfish residing in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine.

Though jawless, the hagfish is not without teeth or a means to gain access to tender flesh. It has an extendable tongue equipped with two curved rows of sharp, horny teeth that open and close like a book. Just above that, the hagfish has a fang, which is used to snag prey and keep it from wriggling away. Its toothy tongue and hooked grasp are effective for feeding on soft-bodied creatures, such as worms and other small invertebrates, but not so handy when it comes to prey with tougher skin or scales. Hagfishes have, however, discovered another, easier way to gain access to their victims’ tasty, tender insides. They go in through open orifices, such as the mouth, gills, or yes, I am sorry to say, the backdoor. Once inside their prey (already or mostly dead, I swear), hagfishes feast on soft flesh, muscles, organs, and guts. Fishermen know this sly tactic all too well because sometimes upon hauling in their catch all they get is a fish-skin bag full of bones and squirming hagfish.

Along with their gruesome propensity to feed on the dead, hagfishes are well known for their slime, lots of slime (plate 2). If a hagfish, alias slime monster or slime hag, is threatened or injured, it releases mucus from hundreds of glands along its body. In just minutes, one hagfish can fill seven buckets with slime. The glands of the hagfish actually release a thick white fluid containing vesicles of mucus and bundles of thread-like cells. Like balls of string uncoiling, the threads unwrap; they then tangle, combine with the mucus, absorb seawater, and expand into massive amounts of sticky, slimy hagfish goo. Hagfishes use their slime to deter predators and facilitate escape.

However, if a hagfish gets caught in its own slime, it can suffocate and endure a most unpleasant fate—death by goo. It has thus evolved a few useful tricks to clear away its own slime. When slime gets up its nose, the hagfish blows it out by sneezing. To free its body of slime, the hagfish wraps its tail around its body and then slides the knot toward its head, scraping itself clear of goo. Its excellent knot-tying skills are also used in feeding to create leverage and improve its flesh-tearing abilities. The hagfish bites onto an irregularity in the skin of its prey and then slides a knot up toward its head, thus enhancing the strength of its pull and ripping power. This process, however, is slow and awkward, so going for the orifices is still a quicker and more efficient means to obtain access to a victim’s soft, tasty insides.

Hagfishes spend most of their time at rest hidden within burrows or among rocks at the seafloor. They can also go for long periods of time without feeding. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, hagfish at the Moss Landing Marine Lab survived for fourteen weeks without food. They are quick to respond, however, when a meal is at hand and will converge en masse should a bounty of carrion become available at the seafloor, such as a dead whale. Scientists investigating baited traps in the deep sea regularly find them teeming with feeding, writhing hagfish. The hagfishes have excellent olfactory and tactile senses; they readily sniff for and feel out the weak or the dead. Not much to worry about on a leisurely swim, but for me at least, burial at sea is no longer an option. And as for my friend in Maine, she continues to spread the word about the ghoulish hagfish. One of her disciples is a triathlete who competes during the summers in New England when the water is relatively balmy. He regularly dons a wetsuit to ward off not so much the cold, but rather the sneaky hagfish. On a more positive note he says that just knowing that the orifice-seeking creatures are out there makes him swim faster.

Amazingly, there are some organisms in the sea that find hagfishes appetizingcod and sharks, as well as octopuses, seals, and dolphins make slippery meals of these not-so-lovely fishes. Hagfishes have changed little over the last 330 million years and are thought to be one of the early ancestors of vertebrate animals with a braincase, such as humans. If you thought evolution from primates was hard to swallow, how about having a hagfish in your ancestral lineage?

Love Potion # 9

They have been called the cockroaches of the sea, were considered junk food by America’s early settlers, and are now the ultimate in fine dining. But rarely are lobsters recognized for the power of their pee, their antisocial behavior, or the growing pains they must regularly endure. Over decades of laboratory and field research, scientists have discovered many fascinating, and in some cases rather bizarre, things about lobsters. And a warning if you choose to read on: the lobster on your plate may never look quite the same or quite as delectable.

There are over one hundred species of lobsters found throughout the world’s oceans, including the classic large-clawed American lobster, better known as the Maine lobster. There are also spiny, mud, spear, whip, and the shovel-like slipper varieties. Their hues vary, from the typical greenish-brown to tan or red, to almost a bluish color. Due to rare mutations, the well-known Maine lobster can sometimes be found suited in bright blue, white, or an odd half-and-half coloration. The basic body plan of a lobster goes something like thisan external hard shell or carapace, a head that is fused with the upper torso, two stalked, moveable and compound eyes, a tail fin, and ten legs. What chefs and diners usually call the tail is actually the animal’s muscle-laden, segmented abdomen. The lobster’s firm abs are well toned from use in fast swimming escapes, as anyone who has tried to catch one knows. They use rapid contractions of their abdominal muscles to flap their tails and sprint away backward. At one time, scientists thought that lobsters were mainly scavengers, but now they are believed to be active foragers, and at times, ambush predators. They use their claws, jaws, and legs for crushing, seizing, slicing, and a bit of dicing. On the menu for lobsters are mollusks, such as mussels, clams, and scallops, as well as sea urchins, worms, and crabs. Some lobsters have also been seen to eat fish or filter feed, straining seawater for coarse particulate material. If dead fish are available, they will eat that too, and they sometimes even eat each other. In fact, lobsters have been known to ingest a lot of things, including pieces of plastic, tea bags, wool, and even a rusty nail. In general, however, adult lobsters seem to have a discriminating palate, with a preference for fresh shellfish, crabs, or sea urchins.

Most lobsters, particularly in relatively shallow water, are night owls, nocturnal foragers. Shortly after sunset they leave the protection of their dens to go on the prowl. When they return, often just before sunrise, they may go into the shelter they left from or seek out the closest available place for protection. For the Caribbean spiny lobster, a good hiding hole is best if it also comes with company. It looks for crevices, overhangs, or coral outcroppings that can provide concealment and protection, and that contain other spiny lobsters. More is better when it comes to warding off predators such as sharks or a grouper, as a wall of waving whip-like spines covered with tiny spikes must deter many a hungry invader. A backdoor for escapes is also handy, and many lobster holes have two entrances or exits. The adult Maine lobster, on the other hand, does not seem so fond of its neighbors and will fight fiercely over dominance and the best shelters.

Of course, for these lobsters the best dens are not just good for protection, they also lead to more mates, more sex, and probably more descendants.

What determines a winner in the power struggles of the Maine lobster? In this case, size does matterclaw size that is.

Research suggests that the Maine lobster is typically a combatant, promiscuous creature. Undersea battles establish a hierarchy that allows dominant males to get prime real estate and use it to attract the most mates. Posturing and displays resolve some confrontations, while others end up in a brawl, a boxing match, or a brutal fight to the death. Some lobsters choose to avoid opponents all together and will run away from a fight or make a fast retreat with a few flicks of the tail. Lobsters that do decide to engage begin by sizing each other up, whipping their antennae to and fro to feel and sniff out their opponents. They may then push, shove, and lock claw to claw, in an arm-wrestling test of strength. In battle, sometimes it is the lobster that draws a claw first that wins, like a western-style duel, or they may test each other’s nerve with a game of “chicken.” In the extreme, claws or other appendages may be torn or ripped from their bodies.

Luckily, lobsters can regenerate most of their appendages. If an eye is lost, however, they cannot grow it back, and strangely enough another appendage may grow in its place, such as an oddly located walking leg. And if the need should arise, a lobster can jettison or slice off its own limb, a clever escape tactic, especially if you can grow back the lost appendage. In large tanks, some victorious lobsters have been observed to show mercy on the defeated, while others are not so kind and may mutilate or hack the loser to death. Research has also revealed that in fights, lobsters get really pissed offliterally.

Whether it is as a precursor to battle or in a bit of foreplay, when Maine lobsters meet, pee matters. They are well-equipped and stocked to make good use of their urine. Each lobster has a pair of muscular nozzles located just below its antennaea twin set of built-in pee-blasters, which are connected to an ample supply of urine that is stored in two bladders also located within its head. To further its pee-shooting range, a lobster can generate water currents with its gills and mouthparts, enabling it to reach a target, such as an opponent’s face, some seven body-lengths or about 1.5 meters (5 feet) away. Lobsters actively sniff for undersea “odors” or chemicals by flicking their smaller pair of antennae, or antennules, back and forth. In laboratory studies, the lobster to pee first and with the “sweetest” smelling urine, along with the largest claw, is the most likely to win in battle. Underlying the effects of the lobster’s urine are hormones that seem to control aggression and additional chemicals or pheromones that act as this leggy crustacean’s version of “Love Potion #9.”

When a female Maine lobster approaches a shelter, hot for some action, she not only sniffs for a male’s pee, she lets loose a stream of her own. Her urine can render a once brutish male docile and even touchy, feely. Instead of smacking the female over the head with his crushing claw, the seduced male waves his antennae gently over her body as she enters his den. On occasion, a female’s love potion may not be fully effective and she may be rejected, especially if she is unprepared to come out of her shelland not in a metaphorical sense. Before mating, a female lobster molts, whereby she becomes soft, vulnerable, and her relevant private parts are accessible to the male. By doing so, she also conveniently provides her mate with a nutritious postcoital snack, her molted shell. After mating, a female lobster may spend a few days recovering from her molt within the male’s shelter. She then simply walks away and a new female lobster will come to call.

Dominant males are repeatedly seduced into a continuous series of short-term affairs, while the females seem to choose when and with whom they will mate. The subordinate males, those that do not win battles or get the best lairs, will sometimes get a few of the dominant males’ leftovers, but without a large, attractive condo to share, they remain mainly frustrated bachelors on the make.

Female lobsters can store the males’ sperm for up to about three years, using it to fertilize several batches of eggs. They may carry tens of thousands of eggs glued under their abdomens for some ten months before hatching occurs. In their larval stages, the young lobsters join the ranks of the plankton for days, weeks or possibly months depending on the species and surrounding conditions. Each baby lobster will go through several developmental stages before growing into its more familiar form and taking to a life at the seafloor. Juvenile lobsters tend to live in shallow, protected coastal habitats until they are large enough to safely roam at greater depths.

For lobsters, molting is an important part of mating, a life-long necessity, and conceptually at least, a painful process. Like other crustaceans, as a lobster grows it must molt to replace its rigid carapace with one that is larger and able to hold a bigger body, sort of like turning in a small compact car for a minivan. Mature lobsters may molt several times a year; juveniles must do it more often because they grow faster than the adults. But they don’t simply leap out of one shell and grow another; it is a lengthy, fascinating process, and lobsters spend a good part of their lives undergoing the changes involved. Molting begins with some serious dieting, as a lobster must shed some of its mass. Simultaneously, a new paper-thin exoskeleton starts to form under its shell and its blood is moved from its outer appendages, like the claws, spines, or legs, into its body. Then it is time for a drink, a really big drink. A lobster guzzles water so that its body swells and its old carapace is pushed apart. Essentially, some serious bloating causes the lobster to unzip, unhinge, and literally burst at its seams. Lying on its side, slicked up with some lubricating slime, a lobster then must pull its body, including the antennae, legs, spines, claws, and mouthparts, out from the remains of its old shell. For Maine lobsters, particularly those well endowed in the claw area, the process must be especially difficult and possibly painful. They must pull their large, bloated claws through the slender jointed wrists of the old carapace. Think of trying to squeeze swollen hands through a pair of handcuffsand they have to do it every time they molt. Once its appendages are through and the last bit of its shell has been shaken off, the newly emerged lobster or “shedder” is a floppy, jellylike creature trying to stand up on wobbly legs with a shell the consistency of thin, wrinkly plastic wrap. It then goes again for the bloat; drinking water to inflate its size even further so that it has room to grow within its new carapace once it has hardened. A lobster typically devours some of its old shell for a megadose of minerals and nutrients.

Shedding can take just several minutes or last for up to half an hour. It is a dangerous time for the lobsters, as they are immobile and defenseless. They may go into seclusion for several days, emerging only after their new shells have begun to harden. The first body parts to stiffen are those most critical to foraging, such as the tips of the walking legs and mouthparts. It can take several months for the lobsters’ carapace to harden completely.

Maine lobsters molt principally in the relatively warm summer months. The Caribbean spiny lobster may not have the brutal mêlées or social rankings of the Maine lobster, but they exhibit at least two very curious and unique behaviors. Just after the first autumn storm, in locations such as the Bahamas, Florida, Cuba, the Gulf of Mexico, and Central America, spiny lobsters begin a two-to-three-week trek into deeper, offshore waters.

Many marine organisms make lengthy migrations, some much longer than that of the spiny lobster, but few others do it with such style. During their fall trek, thousands of lobsters will traverse the open bottom, marching in an amazing single-file formation known as a queue. They line up head to tail, each lobster closely following the one in front, guided by the touch of its antennae. The movement of the lobsters seems to entice others to leave their shelters and join the crustacean train. Scientists think that a queue is formed to reduce drag, like a professional bicyclist drafting behind the racer ahead. It may also help to prevent predation or aid in orientation while marching.

The spiny lobsters are thought to venture into deeper water to avoid the relatively cold temperatures brought on by storms in the fall and winter months. Other lobsters are known to migrate seasonally, between shelters and habitats, but the spiny lobster may be the only one that creates a single-file offshore express. Experiments suggest that lobsters use the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide to navigate the open ocean and that chemical signals may lead them to specific home ranges or locations.

The spiny lobster’s acute sense of smell also appears to provide it withan exceptional medical diagnostic capability; one that doctors can only dream of. Mark Butler, a professor at Old Dominion University, and Donald Behringer, a research scientist at the University of Florida, discovered that juvenile spiny lobsters will actively shun diseased neighbors. This normally social lobster will avoid dens that harbor lobsters that are infected with a lethal, pathogenic disease, essentially placing them in quarantine.

Even more startling is that the juvenile spiny lobsters seem to be able to detect or “smell” the disease before it becomes infectious. Butler suggests that their behavioral change is an adaptation to thwart the spread of a lethal disease, and that it may be the only known example of this sort of “shunning” in the animal kingdom.

Even with their crushing claws, spiny swords, shield-like carapace, and of course, Super Soaker pee blasters, lobsters are not invulnerable to predators. A wide range of creatures find lobsters fine dining, including fishes, sharks, sea turtles, octopuses, and of course, the most feared of allhumans. For those of you who like to eat the disgusting gooey green stuff inside a lobster’s body, the tomalley, it is the liver and pancreas combined, which acts as a filter and can accumulate pollutants or toxins over time. It is probably best to forgo this rather questionable delicacy.


Reprinted with permission from Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2011 Ellen Prager. All rights reserved.

Hotel Bound

By Amanda Miller


My family loved road trips. Collective confinement we loved somewhat less. My brother and I fought like thugs, my father was seething before we reached the city limits, and my mother’s duties trebled during this so-called time off, as she became not just mother but navigator and referee. Her warnings that we’d better not make our father stop the car earned brief respite from the din of our tiny, angry voices. We knew we deserved a good murdering and believed that one day dad would pull onto the shoulder and deliver.

Pee Shy

By Kristen Elde


The other day I swung by Quest Diagnostics for some routine diabetes-related testing. First up: the blood draw. Ridiculous, but I near-hyperventilate just thinking about this procedure. I always make it a point to inform the phlebotomist of my irrational fear well before he/she does his/her thing, just in case doing so guarantees me a really great draw courtesy some extra care. This woman, pleasant and chatty, laughed and said, “Oh, you’re too much.” Word.

Anyway, it was fine. Fast, painless. Great story, huh? Stay with me.

After blood came urine. Ah, everyone’s favorite: the ol’ pee-in-a-cup trick. Because I’m a decent human being, I’ll skip to the end—to that part when you’re left standing in the middle of a private bathroom, one hand warmed by the golden specimen it’s wrapped around. Generally, this rude sensation need not last long. Following instruction, you simply set your cup, capped tightly and marked with a personal identifier, on a designated shelf. With a thorough scrub of the hands, you’re on your merry way.

Today, though, things went a bit differently for me. For starters, at the point that I was ready to hand off to the shelf, I realized the bathroom was not furnished with one. The words of the friendly phlebotomist came back to me: “Just bring your sample back here [bloodletting room] when you’re finished.” I then realized there was no lid to go with my cup, nor was there a strip with my name on it. Wha? But it could be anyone’s! What if there’s a mix-up? What if someone else gets my diabetic pee? What if I end up with a meth addict’s pee? Highly unprofessional! Gingerly setting my cup on the floor, I washed my—wait, no water? And none of that deliciously foamy soap to go with it? Nothing! Remembering that I’d be handling the cup again anyway, I let it drop (the issue, not the pee).

More than a little freaked, I nudged the door open. There were several people—staff, patients—filling the small hallway, and while I knew my room was close, anxiety was clouding my ability to recall details. Is it that room two doors left or the one just right? By now I had completely cleared the bathroom, putting me and my pee in full view of passersby. I took a left that should’ve, turned out, been a right, and when I went to correct myself, I felt the pee slosh in its cup. Whoa! This was followed by visions of dampened pant hems, disgusted faces, injurious slips… Oh, to hell with it. I walked into the nearest empty room and placed my cup, its contents exposed to plenty of airborne bacteria by now, on the handiest surface I could find (probably too close to the computer, but hey) and aimed to jet. On my way down the hall, I caught sight of my phlebotomist. Muttering and pointing, I made it clear where my pee was resting. Then I realized I was without wallet. Which meant I still needed to locate my room. Thankfully, without that cup in hand, my brain function restored itself and things fast settled out.

If ever I could’ve benefited from an open container law…

When asked to describe the epitome of man’s best friend I imagine few people would include phrases like “moderate to severe separation anxiety” or “urinates in the house.”  Fewer still might imagine a dog who clearly lost the ability to survive in nature earlier in their evolution than, perhaps, a Chinese Crested

or a Chihuahua.

Chihuahuas, after all, are tenacious, aggressive, and while they may shake through it, one might at least lose a finger in a standoff.

Nonetheless, my boyfriend and I have been hard pressed to find these so-called faults with our dog important.  I believe in his own words my better half admitted that, while he knew it was wrong, he would willingly clean up lakes of pee rather than imagine a day without our dog.  I feel much the same way.  This may go a long way to explaining why we have as yet been unable to solve this annoying and unsanitary problem.

Taxi—that’s the dog—is a mixed breed pound puppy who I rescued from the New York City municipal shelter.  I imagine the aforementioned problems may have prompted his placement there, as it certainly couldn’t have been his looks.

I mean honestly, have you ever seen a better looking dog in all your life?  If your answer is yes, you can keep it to yourself.  But the inability or lack of desire, shall we say, to potty train is, more often than not, counted as a serious problem.  Lucky for him, I had no idea this lay ahead and within 2.5 seconds after we met, it no longer mattered.

Since his homecoming, Taxi has been through a battery of training, including the unparalleled, behavior-influenced methods of Cesar Milan.  We were devoted Cesar fans, watched his show, The Dog Whisperer, on television and read both books.  Cesar’s Way appealed to me as the daughter of a scientist and an avid amateur animal behaviorist.  His approach seemed most focused on communicating with your animal in a way he/she would best understand.   That they are not people and should not be treated such is a theme both in the books and television series, as well as the recurring mantras of ample exercise and inner strength by the “pack leader.”  That’d be me.

Somehow, I don’t think the dog views me as his pack leader.  I’m reminded of this every time I try to take him for a walk.  Instead of leaping around, anxious for his leash, he walks to his bed, lies down and lifts his leg for a belly rub.  Come on man, are you a dog or not?  Not, I think is his answer.

“I tell my clients to take their dogs for a good long walk, run, or even a Rollerblade session first thing in the morning…Really tire her out.  Then it’s feeding time.  By the time you leave the house, your dog will be tired and full, and in a naturally resting state.” – Cesar Milan, Cesar’s Way

Uh huh.  What if the dog won’t go, Cesar?  I know he has to pee.  I’m sure of it.  After I sleep all night, I do and I want to do it in my toilet not on the floor under my Dad’s desk.  But every morning I carry my dog out the door and down the stairs before he’s ready to actually walk a bit.  Then, as soon as he’s done his business, around he turns and back we come.  And God forbid if it’s raining or otherwise inclement.  That’s a non-starter, that is.

“By humanizing dogs, we damage them psychologically.” – Cesar Milan, Cesar’s Way

Oh my God, the guilt.  Although not Catholic or Jewish, I am no less immune.  But anthropomorphizing the dog seems virtually impossible to avoid.  He’s got lips like a man and features that are all too human.  His apparent understanding of the world around him muddies the waters and, as I mentioned previously, the boyfriend and I are suckers.  I’m sure talking to the dog the way we do is not allowed.

“Who is a very big dog?  Is he big and handsome?  He is very special and his Mommy loves him, yes she does!”

This is said in a horrible, baby voice and he loves it.  Worse, we can’t stop ourselves.  It’s wrong!

Yesterday I came home to what I thought was a successful day.  Only gone a few hours and the boyfriend home the whole time, I didn’t expect there to be a problem.  Taxi seemed happy and relaxed, in no hurry to go outside and very pleased with himself.  I gave him a bone and sat down at my computer do to a little work before fixing dinner.  Unfortunately, because of my latest cold I was completely unaware of what lay behind me.  A few moments later my boyfriend came in and pointed it out.  There it was, a big pile of poop on our throw rug and the dog happily chewing his bone on the couch right above it.  Sigh.

So after years of obedience work, behavioral work, and advice from dog trainers, we are no farther along than we were when we started.  I’m sure this is my fault.  It’s always the mother’s fault and besides, that’s what all the books say.  In the end, I guess we’ve just decided to manage.  I keep a stock of Nature’s Miracle and a bucket and mop on hand at all times.  We continue our work to achieve potty training but we’re obviously poorly suited to it.  I only hope this dog might be able to teach an old girl some new tricks and one day help me figure out how to get him to pee outside.  Otherwise who knows; I might start peeing under the desk too.