Look at a hagfish and you'll probably think it's pretty icky. Don't look at any hagfish and you'll probably never think about them at all. But these oft-ignored creatures play an essential role in the ocean ecosystem, and you might want to think about them before they're gone.

Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the results of a study of the 76 known hagfish species, and the news wasn't good. According to the research, conducted in association with Conservation International (CI), one hagfish species is critically endangered, two are endangered, six are vulnerable to extinction and two are near-threatened. Another 30 will be listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as "data deficient," meaning there is not enough information to assess their viability in the wild.

The study was published in the July/August issue of Aquatic Conservation.

Why should you care about these ugly, slimy scavengers? Hagfish are bottom feeders that help keep the ocean ecosystem healthy, and in the process keep several species of commercially harvested fish plentiful. "By consuming the dead and decaying carcasses that have fallen to the ocean floor, hagfish clean the floor creating a rich environment for other species including commercial fish such as cod, haddock and flounder," the study's lead author, Landon Knapp, research assistant for the IUCN Marine Biodiversity Unit, said in a prepared statement. "The presence of hagfish in areas of intense fishing is extremely important as large amounts of bycatch are discarded."

In addition to their role in the ocean, some hagfish are also caught and harvested for use as food or leather. But according to the IUCN, harvesting too many hagfish in some parts of the northwestern Atlantic has caused flounder and other commercially valuable species to plummet.

"Hagfish are a great example of one of those 'not-so-cute' species that play a vital role in ecosystem health," Cristiane Elfes, program officer for the CI-IUCN Biodiversity Assessment Unit, said in a prepared statement. "This study highlights the impact we have on hagfish and the importance of protecting them to maintain the stability of ocean ecosystems." The organizations are calling for additional study as well as regulation and management of hagfish fisheries.

Hagfish are ancient eel-like creatures—probably predating bony fish—that typically burrow into carcasses and eat their way back out. They excrete slimy mucus as a defense mechanism, making them very hard for predators to grab. They have three accessory hearts, no vertebrae, no real eyes, and are born as hermaphrodites. According to a write-up from the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the best adjective to describe them is "Lovecraftian," referring to the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote about ancient gods and tentacle beasts from before the dawn of man. While hagfish may not be of Lovecraft's Cthulhian stature, they are a link to a more ancient world, and one that we would do best not to forget.

Photo: Broadgilled hagfish (Eptatretus cirrhatus) by Paddy Ryan / Ryan Photographic, courtesy of IUCN