A Skull with no Vertebral: The Hag fish

Hagfish are eel-shaped, slime-producing marine fish. They are the only known living animals that have a skull but no vertebral column, although hagfish do have rudimentary vertebrae. Along with lampreys, hagfish are jawless.

The classification of hagfish had been controversial. The issue was whether the hagfish was a degenerate type of vertebrate-fish that through evolution had lost its vertebrae (the Original scheme) and was most closely related to lampreys, or whether hagfish represent a stage that precedes the evolution of the vertebral column (the alternative scheme) as is the case with lancelets. Although DNA evidence has supported the original scheme.

Hagfish are typically about 0.5 m (19.7 in) in length. The largest known species is Eptatretus goliath, with a specimen recorded at 127 cm (4 ft 2 in), while Myxine kuoi and Myxine pequenoi seem to reach no more than 18 cm (7.1 in) (some have been seen as small as 4 cm (1.6 in)). They have cartilaginous skulls and tooth-like structures composed of keratin.

Hagfish generally respire by taking in water through their pharynx, past the velar chamber and bringing the water through the internal gill pouches, which can vary in number from 5 to 16 pairs, depending on species. The gill pouches open individually, but in Myxine the openings have coalesced, with canals running backwards from each opening under the skin, uniting to form a common aperture on the ventral side known as the branchial opening. The esophagus is also connected to the left branchial opening, which is therefore larger than the right one, through a pharyngocutaneous duct (esophageocutaneous duct), which has no respiratory tissue. This pharyngocutaneous duct is used to clear large particles from the pharynx, a function also partly taking place through the nasopharyngeal canal. In other species the coalescence of the gill openings is less complete, and in Bdellostoma each pouch opens separately to the outside like in lampreys. The unidirectional water flow passing the gills is produced by rolling and unrolling velar folds located inside a chamber developed from the naso-hypophyseal tract, and is operated by a complex set of muscles inserting into cartilages of the neurocranium, assisted by peristaltic contractions of the gill pouches and their ducts. Hagfish also have a well-developed dermal capillary network that supplies the skin with oxygen when the animal is buried in anoxic mud, as well as a high tolerance for both hypoxia and anoxia, with a well developed anaerobic metabolism. It has also been suggested that the skin is capable of cutaneous respiration.

Very little is known about hagfish reproduction. Embryos are difficult to obtain for study, although laboratory breeding of the Far Eastern inshore hagfish, Eptatretus burgeri, has succeeded. In some species, sex ratio has been reported to be as high as 100:1 in favor of females. Some hagfish species are thought to be hermaphroditic, having both an ovary and a testicle (there is only one gamete production organ in both females and males). In some cases, the ovary is thought to remain nonfunctional until the individual has reached a particular age or encounters a particular environmental stress. These two factors in combination suggest the survival rate of hagfish is quite high.

Depending on species, females lay from one to thirty tough, yolky eggs. These tend to aggregate due to having Velcro-like tufts at either end. Hagfish are sometimes seen curled around small clutches of eggs. It is not certain if this constitutes actual breeding behavior.

Hagfish do not have a larval stage, in contrast to lampreys, which have a long one.

Hagfish have a mesonephric kidney and are often neotenic of their pronephric kidney. The kidney(s) are drained via mesonephric/archinephric duct. Unlike many other vertebrates, this duct is separate from the reproductive tract. Unlike all other vertebrates, the proximal tubule of the nephron is also connected with the coelom, provided lubrication.

The single testicle or ovary has no transportation duct. Instead, the gametes are released into the coelom until they find their way to the posterior end of the caudal region, whereby they find an opening in the digestive system.

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