Dr Jonathan Cox, from the Department of Chemistry, is investigating the hagfish’s unique sense of smell. A paper on the research has recently been published in the Anatomical Record.

Dr Cox said: “Smell seems to play an important part in the behaviour of hagfish – they react rapidly to the arrival of carcasses on the ocean floor, even when they are some distance from the hagfish.

“They approach the food from downstream and in a zigzag fashion, both hallmarks of a scent-tracking animal.”

The three-dimensional structure of an animal’s nose determines how good the animal’s sense of smell is.

To get the three-dimensional structure of a hagfish’s nose, Dr Cox’s team put a preserved specimen of a Pacific hagfish in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine (very similar to the type of MRI machine used in hospitals) and scanned the specimen.

The specimen was held still in the scanner for two days, and the resulting images were some of the best the operator of the machine had ever seen. From the scan, the team was able to build a virtual model of the specimen’s head.

Dr Cox said: “We were very lucky to have a hagfish specimen we could use to create the virtual model – I came across it in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry teaching laboratories where it has been used as a teaching aid for at least 34 years.

“The specimen was stored in a special fluid preservative which kept it intact over the years. The recipe for the fluid was concocted by former Bath scientist H F Steedman.

“It is definitely a Pacific hagfish, but we have no record of who collected or bought it, or for what purpose. It may have been Martin Hardisty who in the past made Bath a centre of excellence in hagfish research. We’re keen to learn more about where the specimen came from – if anyone has information I’d be pleased to hear from them.”

The research team has found that Pacific hagfish have several curious features distributed along their nasal passageway that may enhance their sense of smell. They are continuing their research to determine exactly how these features work.

Interesting facts about hagfish:

  • They are half-blind eel-like creatures that live in the gloomy depths of the ocean
  • They can tie themselves in knots
  • They have four hearts (Time Lords take note)
  • They like to feed off dead and dying animals
  • They suffocate their not-quite-dead-victims with slime
  • They tear the flesh from their victims with a tongue inset with rows of rasping teeth
  • They can also slide into their victims’ mouths (and other orifices) to eat them from their insides out.

Dr Cox can be contacted by email or on 6548 if you have any information that can help explain why the University has its very own hagfish specimen.