Monday, July 02, 2007

Your Challenge for the Day

About a million years ago, I used to write and edit non-fiction children's books. It was pretty fun and extremely interesting. For several months at a time, I got to immerse myself in subjects ranging from ecology to early settler life to the people and culture of Peru.

My favourite books, however, were the ones on natural history. I've loved animals my entire life, and every time I worked on a book I'd try to write the kind of book I liked reading when I was a kid. If the relative success of the titles I worked on is any indication, I didn't do too shabby a job.

It never occurred to me at the time that someday my books would find an audience with my own child. I can't even describe to you how thrilling it is that Sam, all on his own, has discovered the books I wrote and now clamours to have them read to him. His favourites, perhaps not surprisingly, are also mine: a book entitled Weird Animals, which achieved modest success and spawned a sequel, Really Weird Animals.*

It's more than ten years since I wrote these books, and not to toot my own horn (hee! I said "toot"), but the writing has held up a lot better than most other things I've written, which I'd pretty much rather peel off my own retinas than re-read. I still like kids' books (obviously), and I still like animals, and I still find it interesting to read about some of the amazing creatures that once captivated me.

There's the three-toed sloth, with its admirable tenacity and ruggedness. Then you've got your star-nosed mole, who just keeps on keepin' on, despite being blind as a bat and having ten hairless pink feelers growing out of its snout. After that there's the proboscis monkey, the Bozo the Clown of the animal kingdom; not only is he blessed with an incredible schnozz, but it also makes the obligatory honking noise and -- AND -- flies up in the air exactly like a novelty necktie.

And then you've got the hagfish, a creature whose entire raison d'etre seems to be to make you go "Ewww!" when you hear about it. To wit:
The hagfish has no bones! Its muscular body has only a long piece of tough, bending tissue called gristle, which acts as a spine.

The hagfish is sometimes called a "slime eel" or "slime hag" because of the thick layer of slime, or mucus, that coats its skin. Glands down the side of its body constantly produce mucus, making the hagfish so slippery that it can crawl inside its prey. When the single nostril os the hagfish becomes clogged with slime, it simply sneezes to clear its nose.

When a hagfish finds a dead or sick fish, it uses its toothless mouth and raspy tongue to burrow into the fish. Once itside, it sucks out the flesh.
You read correctly. Gristle on the inside, mucus on the outside, and prone both to sneezing and to sucking out the living flesh of its scavenged prey. It looks pretty much how you'd imagine:

I don't know if you can tell from this picture, but that's its head over there on the right. The anus-y part is the mouth. Those spiky things are feelers called barbels that the hagfish uses to feel its way around the ocean. Don't bother looking for the eyes; they're there but covered by a layer of skin.

I love all -- well, most, anyway -- of Mother Earth's creatures, but the hagfish sure doesn't make it easy. Try for yourself. Tonight, when you're saying your prayers, don't forget to include the hagfish in your blessings. Be sincere. You only get points if you mean it.

*It just occurred to me that this post might come off as shilling my own books.
I don't get royalties, so not to worry.


Anonymous said...

This thing reminds me of those wormy mouth sucker things from the pit in King Kong. I wonder if Pete Jackson took his inspiration from this.

Nicole Steeves said...

Why don't you get royalties?

BabelBabe said...

that is truly awesome, and so up my-and my kids' - alley. off to find your books at the library! (if you got royalties, I'd buy 'em, I swear!)

Anonymous said...

Hey! We have some of your books in my library system! We have three, but not these two. Too bad.

RandomRanter said...

How cool!

landismom said...

Hey, now, why didn't you toot your own horn when I was looking for kid science books! This is just what I need.

Unknown said...

Did you know that a freshly caught hagfish, contained in a tank, will produce enough mucus to completely "solidify" the water in that tank? True. I've seen it done. Yick, but fascinating.

Bybee said...

This could never go into a children's book, but older men in Korea love to eat the hagfish. They see it as an aphrodisiac. Most often eaten while drinking vast quantities of alcohol --surprise!

Tammy said...

Nicole, I was under contract as a staff writer and editor, so I got a salary instead of royalties and all that.

Landismom, I remember your post asking for good science books, and to be honest, I didn't even think of my own books. Modesty? Forgetfulness? I don't even know why.

Elizabeth and Bybee, congratulations! I'm not prone to vomiting, but your comments actually made me gag! Well done!

Heatherkay said...

You left off the best thing about that picture. When a hagfish gets too slimy for even a hagfish, it ties itself in knot, which it slides down its body to scrape off the slime.

Bon appetit!