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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What's in YOUR whiskers?

Today, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something unfamiliar near the face of this harbor seal (Phoca vitulina).  Can you see the small, oblong, yellowish capsule-like objects dangling below its chin?

Here's another view:

Do you have any guesses about what they could be?  I have one, but I'd be interested in other ideas if you have them.

My guess is that they're the eggs of a Pacific Hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii).  Before today, I wouldn't have thought that harbor seals eat hagfish eggs.  But after this sighting, I reviewed some information online and found several references to harbor seals eating them.

Here's a close-up of a hagfish egg found in 2006 (thanks to Jim Carlton for helping us identify it at that time):

Note the wiry, thread-like structures on both ends.  These allow the eggs to "stick" together in a cluster.  Hagfish lay 20-30 eggs at one time.

This is a cluster of empty hagfish egg cases that we encountered washed up on a beach in April 2012:

And a close-up of the central area so that you can see the threads and the way they are tangled together.

I'm imagining that the harbor seal ate a cluster of hagfish eggs and a few got caught on its whiskers!  In the next photo, it's almost as if the seal is dreaming about how good they tasted.

P.S.  If you haven't yet heard of hagfish, also known as "slime eels," check out this well done article about them.

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