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No AccessNeurobiology and Behavior

Handed Behavior in Hagfish—an Ancient Vertebrate Lineage—and a Survey of Lateralized Behaviors in Other Invertebrate Chordates and Elongate Vertebrates

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E9

Hagfish represent an ancient lineage of boneless and jawless vertebrates. Among several curious behaviors they exhibit, solitary individuals in one dominant genus of hagfish (Eptatretus spp.) regularly rest in a tightly coiled posture. We present the first systematic treatment of this distinctive behavior. Individual northeastern Pacific hagfish (E. stoutii) exhibited significant handedness (preferred orientation of coiling). However, right-coiling and left-coiling individuals were equally common in the population. Individual hagfish likely develop a preference for one direction by repeating the preceding coiling direction. We also revisit classical accounts of chordate natural history and compare the coiling behavior of Eptatretus with other handed or lateralized behaviors in non-vertebrate chordates, lampreys, and derived vertebrates with elongate bodies. Handed behaviors occur in many of these groups, but they likely evolved independently. In contrast to vertebrates, morphological asymmetries may bias lateralized larval behaviors toward one side in cephalochordates and tunicates. As a consequence, no known handed behavior can be inferred to have existed in the common ancestor of vertebrates.