Ace, a male giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) between 40 and 50 pounds and two-and-a-half to three-years old, and YoYo, a female of a similar size and age, will be introduced for the first time today.
At 12 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (3 p.m. Eastern), keepers at the Seattle Aquarium will lift a barrier that has been separating these two octopuses and see if sparks fly—or at least if the encounter raises the rates of the six hearts involved (each octopus has three of these blood-pumping organs). The encounter will be broadcast live on their Octopus Cam.
Octopuses usually mate just once in life. They can also be aggressive to their own kind (and occasionally cannibalistic). So to keep things safe, most aquariums keep octopuses in their own tanks for their whole life spans (or until they're released).
The Seattle Aquarium has created a tradition of letting two of their resident solitary cephalopods make a little love—in full public view—each Valentine's Day.
The mating rituals of the octopus vary among species and individuals. Some males wrangle a female in an army embrace, inserting their specialized hectocotylus arm (which transmits the sperm packets) into her mantle via her funnel. Others practice safer sex and perform this from a distance. Still others risk neither life nor limb. They voluntarily remove their hectocotylus (which, yes, happens to actually be their third arm) and gives it to the female for her to use when she is ready. Finally, one unusual species—that has yet to be named—mates mouth-to-mouth and throughout the course of their life.
If mating is successful, a female will lay a clutch of tens or hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs. These can take months to hatch, a period during which the female carefully tends and cleans them. Once the tiny baby octopuses—just millimeters in length—emerge, the female's job is done, and she fades away. Males begin their own descent to death soon after they mate.
The giant Pacific octopus is the longest-lived octopus that we know of, but their average lifespan is only three to five years. (Earlier this week the Smithsonian's National Zoo's longest-lived octopus, Pandora, died at the age of five.) The exact ages of these two octopuses in Seattle is unknown, but "we guess according to their size and behavior," Kathryn Kegel, a biologist at the aquarium, says.
And judging from their behavior, they might just be ready for love. "From what we have seen, we feel that this pair is ready to mate," she notes. A transparent barrier separates their two tanks, behind which they have already been interacting "and checking each other out."
Does this mean they are sure to pair off? "We never know for sure until we remove the barrier, but we are pretty sure it will go off without a hitch," Kegel says.
This octopus blind date kicks off Octopus Week at the aquarium, during which there are other cephalopod-centric activities, including the public release of each of the blind date's participants "to complete their life cycle back in the Puget Sound," Kegel says. (The releases of the octo-lovers will also be streamed live. The female YoYo will get her sendoff Friday. And Ace will get his splash down on February 23.)
Because the adult octopuses are sent off into the sound so soon after their one-afternoon stand, "we never know for 100 percent if the mating was successful," Kegel says. "But from what we can observe we have had almost all of our pairs come together and display mating behavior."
What does a union look like with all of those arms? Will they fight? Will they play hard to get? Will it be octo-lust at first sight? Stay tuned to the aquarium's live feed starting at 12 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (3 p.m. Eastern) and watch for yourself. If you miss it, we'll link to a video below in the days to follow.
To read more about the mysteries of octopus love and courtship, check out Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen