An Inconvenient Hagfish


We think of scientific progress as working like building blocks constantly being added to a growing structure, but sometimes a scientific discovery can actually lead us to realize that we know less than we thought we did. Take vision, for instance. Vertebrates (animals with backbones) have complex, highly-developed “camera” eyes, which include a lens and an image-forming retina, while our invertebrate evolutionary ancestors had only eye spots, which are comparatively very simple and can only sense changes in light level.

At some point between vertebrates and their invertebrate ancestors, primitive patches of light sensitive cells which served only to alert their owners to day/night cycles and perhaps the passing of dangerous shadows, evolved into an incredibly intricate organ capable of forming clear, sharp images; distinguishing minute movements; and detecting minor shifts in light intensity.

Schematic of how the vertebrate eye is hypothesized to have evolved, by Matticus78

In order for evolutionary biologists to fully understand when and how this massive leap in complexity was made, we need an intermediate stage. Intermediates usually come in the form of transitional fossils; that is, remains of organisms that are early examples of a new lineage, and don’t yet possess all of the features that would later evolve in that group. An intriguing and relatively recent example is Tiktaalik, a creature discovered on Ellesmere Island (Canada) in 2004, which appears to be an ancestor of all terrestrial vertebrates, and which possesses intermediate characteristics between fish and tetrapods (animals with four limbs, the earliest of which still lived in the water), such as wrist joints and primitive lungs. The discovery of this fossil has enabled biologists to see what key innovations allowed vertebrates to move onto land, and to precisely date when it happened.

There are also species which are referred to as “living fossils”, organisms which bear a striking resemblance to their ancient ancestors, and which are believed to have physically changed little since that time. (We’ve actually covered a number of interesting living fossils on this blog, including lungfish, Welwitschia, aardvarks, the platypus, and horseshoe crabs.) In the absence of the right fossil, or in the case of soft body parts that aren’t usually well-preserved in fossils, these species can sometimes answer important questions. While we can’t be certain that an ancient ancestor was similar in every respect to a living fossil, assuming so can be a good starting point until better (and possibly contradictory) evidence comes along.

So where does that leave us with the evolution of eyes? Well, eyes being made of soft tissue, they are rarely well preserved in the fossil record, so this was one case in which looking at a living fossil was both possible and made sense.

Hagfish, which look like a cross between a snake and an eel, sit at the base of the vertebrate family tree (although they are not quite vertebrates themselves), a sort of “proto-vertebrate.” Hagfish are considered to be a living fossil of their ancient, jawless fish ancestors, appearing remarkably similar to those examined from fossils. They also have primitive eyes. Assuming that contemporary hagfishes were representative of their ancient progenitors, this indicated that the first proto-vertebrates did not yet have complex eyes, and gave scientists an earliest possible date for the development of this feature. If proto-vertebrates didn’t have them, but all later, true vertebrates did, then complex eyes were no more than 530 million years old, corresponding to the time of the common ancestor of hagfish and vertebrates. Or so we believed.

The hagfish (ancestors) in question.  Taken from: Gabbott et al. (2016) Proc. R. Soc. B. 283: 20161151

This past summer, a new piece of research was published which upended our assumptions. A detailed electron microscope and spectral analysis of fossilized Mayomyzon (the hagfish ancestor) has indicated the presence of pigment-bearing organelles called melanosomes, which are themselves indicative of a retina. Previously, these melanosomes, which appear in the fossil as dark spots, had been interpreted as either microbes or a decay-resistant material such as cartilage.

This new finding suggests that the simple eyes of living hagfish are not a trait passed down unchanged through the ages, but the result of degeneration over time, perhaps due to their no longer being needed for survival (much like the sense of smell in primates). What’s more, science has now lost its anchor point for the beginning of vertebrate-type eyes. If an organism with pigmented cells and a retina existed 530 million years ago, then these structures must have begun to develop significantly earlier, although until a fossil is discovered that shows an intermediate stage between Mayomyzon and primitive invertebrate eyes, we can only speculate as to how much earlier.

This discovery is intriguing because it shows how new evidence can sometimes remove some of those already-placed building blocks of knowledge, and how something as apparently minor as tiny dark spots on a fossil can cause us to have to reevaluate long-held assumptions.


  • Gabbott et al. (2016) Proc. R. Soc. B. 283: 20161151
  • Lamb et al. (2007) Nature Rev. Neuroscience 8: 960-975

*The image at the top of the page is of Pacific hagfish at 150 m depth, California, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, taken and placed in the public domain by Linda Snook.

2 Replies to “An Inconvenient Hagfish”

  1. Do you think the term “living fossil” is misleading? Even though sharks, coelacanths, etc. look very similar structurally to fossils hundreds of millions of years old, their genes must be substantially different due to genetic drift, right? The apparent physical consistency gives people the impression that some modern species are ancestors of other modern species.

    A similar effect occurs when discussing recent human evolution. Because humans’ common ancestor with chimps must have looked much more like a chimp than a modern human, the impression is that chimps and other apes have remained the same and we evolved.

    What do you think?

    1. Absolutely. Species referred to as living fossils have been found to have evolved genetically at the same average rate as non-“fossils”, and I’d say the hagfish gives a good example of why we need to be careful in our assumptions even when it comes to physical similarity of soft tissues that don’t fossilize well or may have very subtle differences. Here’s an article by well-known science writer Ed Yong that elaborates on that a bit more:

      I’ve heard people say more than once that the term should be retired. I would say it sometimes provides a useful shorthand, but you’re right to point out that there’s more to the story than apparent physical similarity, and it might be wise to clarify what we mean when we use it.

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