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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Friends of Oceanography Public Lecture Series
Explores the Strange, Wondrous, and Disgusting Hagfish

Narragansett, RI -- March 25, 2002 --The hagfish truly is, as the saying goes, a "strange and wondrous beast," but the adjective most often applied to them is "disgusting."

Dr. Robert Kenney, URI Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) marine scientist, will present a free public lecture on Hagfish: The Most Disgusting Fish in the Sea. The lecture will take place in the Coastal Institute Auditorium on the URI Bay Campus in Narragansett on Sunday, April 7, at 3 p.m. Refreshments will be served after the lecture.

Hagfish are pretty close to the bottom on the marine-animal beauty scale, their feeding habits are simply not to be believed (or even talked about in polite society), and they are the world champions of slime production. In fact, the Latin name of our local species translates as "gluey slime."

So why would anyone care at all about hagfish? In fact, hagfish skin can be made into very fine leather, and has been the basis of valuable fisheries in several places in the world. Their slime is actually fiber-reinforced, and the microscopic fibers are about as strong as spider silk, which has a much more complex structure, or even Kevlar—the material in a bullet-proof vest.
The main scientific importance, however, is in what we can learn from them about some of our earliest ancestors. Hagfish are actually not fish, and they are not even vertebrates—the 50 or so living species are the only survivors of the first group of animals to have evolved a simple skull. They have been evolving separately from the vertebrates for at least 500 million years. For the scientists who study them (admittedly, it's a very small group), the most difficult questions deal with which aspects of their biology and anatomy are the same as in their long-ago ancestors, and which represent degeneration or simplification from earlier forms due to their unique life-style.

Established in 1985 to support and promote the activities of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, Friends of Oceanography informs and educates the membership and the general public about the scientific, technological, and environmental research that takes place at GSO. The organization sponsors public lectures, open houses, marine-related mini-courses, science cruises on Narragansett Bay, and an annual auction. The Friends office is located in the Coastal Institute building on URI's Narragansett Bay Campus. For information about Friends of Oceanography, call 874-6642.

Contact: Lisa Cugini, (401) 874-6642, lcugini@gso.uri.edu

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