7,500 Pounds of 'Eels' Cover Oregon Road with Slime (Here's Why)

truck filled with eel slime
A truck filled with slime eels, or hagfish, recently overturned on an Oregon highway, covering the entire roadway in slimy goo. (Image credit: Oregon State Police via Twitter)

A truck carrying a bunch of slime eels recently crashed on the highway in Oregon, releasing a mind-boggling amount of slime and forcing the highway to close.

The slithery creatures fell off a truck on Highway 101 in Oregon yesterday (July 13), causing a five-car crash, coating nearby cars in a Ghostbusters'-worthy amount of slime, and sending the spooked creatures slithering across the road, Oregon Live reported.

But what exactly are these creatures, and why on Earth do they produce so much slime?

It turns out that the creatures aren't truly eels at all, but are hagfish, or primitive, bottom-dwelling fish that use their slime to fend off predators, several experts said. [Photos: The Freakiest Looking Fish]

Slimy incident

The slime eels, or Pacific hagfish, had been collected from the Newport Bayfront on Oregon's coast and were in containers on a truck that overturned, said Cari Boyd, a lieutenant for the Newport Area Command of the Oregon State Police. Their ultimate destination was apparently South Korea, where they are considered a delicacy, Boyd said.

However, when the driver of the truck came upon road constructions, he wasn't able to stop in time and overturned, and the crates of 7,500 pounds (3,400 kilograms) of hagfish went flying off the truck. After the incident, highway workers had to close the roadway to clean off the sticky goo.

Primitive fishes

The creatures in question are a species of jawless fish that have seen the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and have changed very little in the last 300 million years, said William O'Connor, a biologist with Ecofact Environmental Consultants Ltd. in Ireland, who is an expert on eels. The eely-looking creatures belong to the group Agnatha and are similar to lampreys, O'Connor added.

While they may not be the most photogenic of creatures, the scavenging bottom-dwellers play an important role in the ecosystem, recycling nutrients and serving as prey, O'Connor said. They are not endangered, but their numbers have dropped, thanks to overfishing for food and leather (called eel skin), said Douglas Fudge, a comparative biologist and hagfish expert at Chapman University in California. [Extreme Life on Earth: 8 Bizarre Creatures]

They produce slime to clog the gills of would-be predator fish, O'Connor said.

"They are found in deep water with soft substrates and usually bury themselves away to hide from predators so usually don't have to do this [produce slime]," O'Connor told Live Science. "Ending up on a highway is a different matter, of course."

Big cleanup job

The unceremonious ejection from the truck likely triggered their slime-a-thon.

"They generally make the slime as a defense against predators, but they also do it when they are stressed out, and being dumped onto a highway counts as stress for a hagfish," Fudge told Live Science.

The slime itself is made from glands that run along the length of the hagfish body. The slime is made up of a combination of mucus (mucin) and protein fibers that act like tiny threads. The threads uncoil, while the mucin absorbs water, creating a 3D network that becomes 10,000 times bigger than its initial volume, Ryan Kincer, a materials engineer with the U.S. Navy, previously told Live Science.

Because of its bizarre properties, hagfish slime has been studied extensively for potential applications in the military, medicine and clothing, O'Connor said. The Navy has even considered mimicking hagfish slime to protect warships from bullets, fight fires and even fend off sharks, according to a statement from the U.S. Navy.

The slime itself has been used by the native Maori in New Zealand as a cleaning agent, O'Connor said. Hagfish clean themselves by twisting their bodies into a knot and wringing themselves out, O'Connor said.

In Oregon, officials cleaned the eel goo off the road using high-pressure hoses and ordinary water, Boyd said. While the slime itself does not dissolve in water, thanks to the silk threads, the pressure likely pushed the slime off the road into a ditch, Chapman said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.