Welcome to winter’s icy dread: Everywhere we look, people are miserably shuffling about, constantly sniffing back a runny nose. While the sneezing soul crammed next to you on the bus might seem adversarial toward your good health, the world is full of critters that have truly weaponized their gooey secretions. This winter, we’re jealous of these four:
1. Hagfish: These primitive, worm-like fish, with their scaleless bodies and poor eyesight, seem like easy prey for predatory fish.
But hagfish, when threatened, release a thick slime from glands running along their sides.
This slime quickly expands in seawater to several gallons’ worth of slippery, translucent grossness. The booger cloud clogs the gills of attackers, promptly persuading them to cough out their hagfish meal.
2. Boxfish: When harassed, these little reef fish excrete a soapy mucus from their skin, which disperses widely into the water.
It is loaded with pahutoxin, a potent, lethal poison that targets enemies’ gills, destroying red blood cells.
Aquarium-residing boxfish, hours after a chance poisonous release, are commonly discovered as a lone, oblivious survivor surrounded by scores of dead tankmates.
3. Velvet worms: These weird, plushy invertebrates are slow, but they capture their food in an amazing fashion.
Velvet worms have two glands near their mouths that can spray ribbons of mucus all over insect prey from a distance, like a pair of Super Soakers.
The slime acts as a snot snare, immediately hardening and gluing insects to wherever they stand.
4. Termites: Termites of the subfamily Nasutitermitinae have soldiers with heads sporting a pointy tube (a “Fontanellar gun”) that can accurately eject a noxious, sticky goop at insects attacking the colony.
The loogie cements enemies in place and slowly poisons them to death, making this one of the deadliest sneezes in the animal kingdom.
Written by Jake Buehler and illustrated by Christin Hardy.
Jake Buehler, is a PhD student and evolutionary biologist at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa in Honolulu, studying the population genetics and evolution of tropical coral reef fish. When not teaching or grad schooling, he also moonlights as a science writer and blogger. He spends his remaining time hiking, snorkeling, and diving on and around his island home. Jake dabbles in landscape photography and has a penchant for awful science puns.
Christin Hardy grew up in a teeny, tiny place called Seven Springs, NC where livestock out numbers people. Her father is a farmer and her mother is an artist, so naturally Christin turned out to be an artist who loves nature, infusing it into her work and life. Currently she works for the NCDOT designing posters, banners and brochures but her heart lies in explaining science through illustrations and graphic design. You can find her on Instagram @c_creature, on Twitter @c_hristin or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.