If you’ve ever wondered whether the slimy, eel-like hagfish have lungs, you’re not alone. Hagfish are strange creatures that look like a cross between an eel and a snake, producing copious amounts of slime when threatened. But do these jawless fish actually have lungs?

The quick answer is no – hagfish do not have lungs. Now, let’s dive deeper into hagfish anatomy and physiology to understand how these unique animals breathe.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about hagfish respiration. We’ll look at the evolutionary history of hagfish, explain how hagfish gills work, compare hagfish to other fish species, and describe their circulatory system.

By the end, you’ll be a hagfish breathing expert!

The Evolutionary Origins of Hagfish

Hagfish are an ancient group of jawless fish that date back over 300 million years. They belong to the class Myxini and are the only living members of the chordate subphylum Craniata that do not have vertebrae.

Hagfish are known for their bizarre and primitive features, leading many scientists to believe they resemble the ancestral form of all vertebrates.

The evolutionary origins of hagfish have been debated for decades. In the late 19th century, scientists hypothesized that hagfish were closely related to lampreys based on similarities in their body plans.

However, molecular studies in the 1990s revealed that hagfish are actually more closely related to jawed vertebrates than to lampreys. This finding challenged the traditional view of vertebrate evolution and indicated that hagfish represent a more ancient lineage than previously thought.

Today, most scientists agree that hagfish diverged from other vertebrates over 550 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion. At that time, early vertebrates were undergoing radical changes, including the development of jaws, a more complex nervous system, and the first paired appendages.

Hagfish retained many of the primitive characteristics of early chordates, earning them the nickname “living fossils.”

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the ancient origins of hagfish is their cranium. Hagfish lack a true vertebrate skull and do not have a distinct braincase or jaw made of bone or cartilage.

Instead, their skull consists of a fibrous sheath called a cranium, which encloses a cartilaginous braincase. This primitive cranial anatomy supports their basal position on the vertebrate family tree.

In addition, hagfish fins are dramatically different from other fish fins and represent one of the oldest fin morphologies. Rather than having a bony internal skeleton like most vertebrate fins, hagfish fins are made up of loose flaps of skin with ray-like projections of soft collagenous fibers.

This arrangement is thought to resemble some of the first fins in early vertebrates.

Genetic studies also confirm the evolutionary distinctiveness of hagfish. Analysis of hagfish DNA indicates they diverged from a common ancestor with jawed vertebrates prior to the evolution of several key vertebrate genes and developmental pathways.

Taken together, the morphological, paleontological, and genetic evidence solidly places hagfish as the most primitive living vertebrate lineage.

While many details remain unknown, most experts agree that hagfish provide a remarkable window into the evolutionary origins of vertebrates. Their unique blend of primitive and advanced features offers clues about the ancestral anatomy, physiology, and genetics of early chordates and vertebrates.

After over 300 million years, hagfish continue to fascinate biologists with their living glimpse into deep evolutionary history.

An Overview of Hagfish Anatomy

External Features

Hagfish have elongate, eel-like bodies that are tapered at both ends. They lack scales, fins, and true eyes. Instead, they have a simple eyespot near the brain that can detect light and dark. Along the body are a series of slime glands that can release copious amounts of slime when the hagfish is provoked.

This slime makes the hagfish very slippery and helps it escape from predators. At the anterior end, hagfish have a sharply pointed tooth plate that they use to feed on dead and dying animals. They burrow into carcasses using this tooth plate and their rasping tongue.

Hagfish do not have a true jaw like other vertebrates.

Other notable external features of hagfish include:

  • Barbels – Sensory appendages around the mouth and nostrils
  • Single median nostril – Opening for the sense of smell
  • Gill openings – 5 pairs of openings along the body for breathing
  • Caudal fin – Flattened tail fin for minor swimming movements

Internal Anatomy

Internally, hagfish have many primitive features compared to more derived vertebrates. They have a simple cartilaginous skull and lack a true vertebral column. Instead, they have a persistent notochord that runs the length of the body. Major organ systems include:

  • Cardiovascular system – Closed circulatory system with a two-chambered heart
  • Respiratory system – Primitive gills for gas exchange
  • Digestive system – Mouth, esophagus, intestine, liver, and spiral intestine
  • Excretory system – Kidneys and mucus glands for waste removal
  • Nervous system – Simple brain, cranial nerves, dorsal nerve cord
  • Reproductive system – Gonads (testes or ovaries), accessory glands, cloaca

Hagfish lack a number of structures found in later vertebrates, including jaws, true eyes, scales, paired appendages, and an adaptive immune system. Their internal anatomy reflects their ancient evolutionary origins.

How Do Hagfish Breathe Without Lungs?

Hagfish Gills

Hagfish have a unique respiratory system that allows them to breathe without having lungs. Instead, they rely on gills to extract oxygen from water. Hagfish gills consist of thin filaments that protrude from the sides of their elongated body.

When water passes over the gills, microscopic blood vessels within the gill filaments absorb oxygen from the water through simple diffusion. The absorbed oxygen is then carried to tissues throughout the body via the hagfish’s circulatory system.

The gills allow hagfish to efficiently remove oxygen from water, even when oxygen levels are low. In fact, studies show that the hagfish gill structure is extremely efficient compared to other marine creatures, enabling them to thrive at depths of over 300 meters where oxygen levels can be less than 5% of surface concentrations.

Hagfish Circulatory System

In addition to unique gills, hagfish also have a specialized circulatory system to distribute oxygen throughout their body. Their circulatory system is considered simple compared to more complex vertebrates. It consists of:

  • A two-chambered heart made up of one ventricle and one atrium
  • Arteries that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the body
  • Veins that return deoxygenated blood to the heart
  • Here’s an overview of how their circulatory system works:

    1. Deoxygenated blood enters the heart’s atrium
    2. It moves to the ventricle and is pumped through the gills where it picks up oxygen
    3. Oxygen-rich blood reenters the heart’s atrium before getting pumped through arteries to tissues throughout the body
    4. Deoxygenated blood returns to the heart through veins and the cycle repeats

    So in short – no lungs needed! Hagfish are perfectly adapted to extract the oxygen they need directly from seawater through an efficient gill and circulatory system.

    Comparison to Other Fish Species

    Sharks and Rays

    Hagfish share some similarities with sharks and rays, as they are all jawless fish. However, there are some key differences in their anatomy:

    • Hagfish do not have a true spine, while sharks and rays have cartilaginous skeletons.
    • Hagfish skin lacks scales which are present in sharks and rays.
    • Hagfish have a skull but lack vertebrae, while sharks and rays have vertebral columns.
    • Hagfish use slime for defense, while sharks and rays rely on speed and jaws.

    In terms of respiration, sharks and rays have 5-7 gill slits on each side of the head that allow water to pass over the gills for gas exchange. Hagfish, on the other hand, have 4 pairs of gill pouches connected internally that function in respiration.

    Bony Fish

    Hagfish differ more significantly from bony fish species in their anatomy:

    • Hagfish do not have a bony skeleton, while bony fish have skeletons made of bone.
    • Bony fish have jaws, while hagfish use tooth plates on their tongue and pharynx to grasp food.
    • Bony fish have a swim bladder for buoyancy, which hagfish lack.
    • The gills of bony fish are exposed, while hagfish have them enclosed in pouches.

    When it comes to respiration, bony fish use their gills which are located on the sides of the head. Water passes uni-directionally from the mouth, over the gills, and out through the gill openings. In contrast, hagfish do not actively pump water through their gill pouches.

    Statistical data shows that there are over 30,000 species of bony fish, compared to only around 76 known species of hagfish. This illustrates the greater diversity and success of bony fish species evolutionarily (Fishbase).


    To summarize, hagfish do not have lungs or any kind of aerial respiration. They breathe through their gills, extracting dissolved oxygen from seawater. While primitive in some ways, the hagfish respiratory system is well-adapted to their habitat and lifestyle.

    After reading this deep dive into hagfish anatomy, you now have a thorough understanding of how these slime-producing bottom dwellers breathe underwater without the need for lungs.

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