March 12, 2013 | 2
The octopus is a solitary creature. Most known species of octopus avoid the company their own kind. And you might, too, if you knew your conspecific were capable of cannibalism.
So in public aquariums, these animals are usually kept in separate tanks to keep them safe (and to avoid any unsightly encounters in front of visitors). But that also means that when they are ready to mate, these lone animals are out of luck for love. Unless, that is, the octopuses happen to be in residence at the Seattle Aquarium.
This aquarium keeps giant Pacific octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini)—one male and one female—for about a year. Once the two are mature and ready to mate, the aquarium prepares a special blind date for them—usually on Valentine’s Day. This year, keepers introduced the female Squirt to the male Rain in front of a live audience (with some red roses and hearts to set the mood).
The two octopuses had been living in separate harmony on opposite sides of a barrier in the same enclosure. Once divers removed the Plexiglas barrier and gave the female some gentle prodding, Squirt slinked her way over to Rain’s domain. They didn’t connect right away—Squirt did a little scoping out of the place first. But the two could likely sense the presence of the other via chemical signals, which they can “taste” through receptors on their suckers. Soon enough, despite the flashing of cameras and squeals of school children, Squirt reached an arm toward Rain. He did the same, and they quickly united in a mess of 16 arms, more than 4,000 suckers and a lot of fleshy web.
Recent coverage of the larger Pacific striped octopus has garnered attention for their unusual mating style—face-to-face, rather than mounted or from an arm’s reach. But the giant Pacific octopus pair didn’t seem too concerned about keeping this sex at a safe distance. Mating can last for up to six hours, one of the aquarium’s experts explained. And average mating time noted in one observational study was 245 minutes (just longer than four hours). That might seem excessive, but for an animal that is destined to die soon after mating, better to get the loving while they can.
After the aquarium’s octopuses are given their chance to mate, the animals are released into nearby Puget Sound. There, the female can lay her eggs in the wild, where she will guard and care for them (wasting away shortly after they hatch). The males usually only live for another few to several months after mating.
After several years of blind dates, about half of the octopus couples have mated before being released. Last year female Mayhem and the diminutive male Rocky sealed the deal to some Barry White.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen