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National Zoo’s Octopus Dies in the Company of Her Favorite Toy—a Kong

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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pandora octopus

Pandora the octopus in 2012; image courtesy of Katherine Harmon Courage

Pandora, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) died at her Washington, D.C. home (tank) Wednesday at the advanced age of five. She stretched more than eight feet across and was the zoo’s longest-lived octopus.

Earlier this week, Biologist and keeper of the invertebrate exhibit, Tamie DeWitt, wrote in an email that, “for the first time, she was lying on the bottom of the tank showing very little muscle tone.”

Despite their incredible intelligence and impressive physical feats, octopuses have relatively short lifespans. Giant Pacific octopuses are thought to rarely live beyond five years. Most males die soon after mating, and females fade away after laying and caring for their eggs. Pandora had laid eggs last spring around Easter.

pandora octopus

Pandora the octopus on her first day at the zoo in 2011; image courtesy of Tamsen DeWitt

“Pandora is our longest-lived octopus,” DeWitt wrote in an email. “She has been on exhibit for over 27 months!” For an octopus, that’s a long time in the public eye. “The staff and volunteers, and so many visitors that know her by name, have become very fond of her.”

The zoo acquired Pandora in the fall of 2011, when she was much, much smaller—having hatched from a rice grain-sized egg herself about two and a half years before that.

I met Pandora in the spring of 2012, when DeWitt introduced me to their resident octopod. During my visit, I got to give the growing octopus a favorite treat: a whiffle ball stuffed with crabmeat.

octopus ball

Stuffing a ball for Pandora; image courtesy of Katherine Harmon Courage

After handing the ball to me, DeWitt led me to the back of the massive tank. Peering in, we gently splashed the surface of the water to lure the octopus out of her hiding place. Pandora was coy at first. But as soon as she noticed what I was holding, she extended one long, strong arm out to taste it. And then another. And then another. She swept the ball up under her web and stuck herself against the back of her tank while she worked with her suckers and mouth to extract the tasty crab bits.

Just as I was about to go, Pandora glided to the top of the tank, floating upside down, displaying the now-empty ball still clutched in her mouth, as if to show off her accomplishment.

pandora octopus ball

Pandora showing off her empty ball; image courtesy of Katherine Harmon Courage

Such octopus antics are nothing new to those who work with them.

“They are so intelligent we want them to stay stimulated so they don’t get bored,” DeWitt told me in an interview a couple of years ago. The invertebrate exhibit even has a semi-scientific study design to see what new toys an octopus likes most. Among past favorites have included a hamster ball (minus the rodent), Mr. Potato Head, scrubber pads, jars, whiffle balls, and a rubber dog toy called a Kong (often stuffed with some kind of delicious treat). Just don’t try to take an octopus’s toy away from it. “You’re never going to win a tug of war with an octopus,” DeWitt said.

On Tuesday, DeWitt gave the fading Pandora one of her favorite toys: a red Kong, which the octopus held on to through her final hours. After covering the tank from public view, DeWitt said, “she appears very comfortable and peaceful.”

pandora octopus

Pandora holding onto her Kong on Tuesday; image courtesy of Tamsen DeWitt

“We are happy to have had her in the invertebrate exhibit for so long, and we understand that this is a part of her life cycle,” DeWitt wrote.

Over the years, the zoo has been through a lot of giant Pacific octopus life cycles. Each with its distinct flavor.

Their previous octopus, Octavius, who lived to be about four years old, was a saucy character, DeWitt noted. Another octopus, named Shadow, rarely emerged from his hiding place at the back of his tank. Yet another, Caroline, was very social and quite active when visitors came around.

The zoo is planning to do restoration work on the main octopus tank but already has plans for their next octopus resident. “We will be delighted when we get a new, young octopus,” DeWitt wrote.

Read more about the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s octopus Pandora in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen


Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. AtlantaTerry 4:33 pm 02/13/2014

    Octavius will be quite tasty when grilled with a salad on the side.

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  2. 2. Ingamas 9:59 pm 02/13/2014

    A) in a way we have a National Octopus.
    B) this story seams to be more emotionally burdensome then it should.

    Tako tsubo ya….
    hakanaki yume wo
    natsu no tsuki
    Matsuo Basho

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  3. 3. sparklyparrot 3:32 am 02/14/2014

    Each with it’s distinct flavor? What a disgusting faux pas. What a stupid author.

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  4. 4. WilliamGrogan 8:27 am 02/15/2014

    I rescued an octopus on a beach recently. It had been a wild night of high winds and several Lobster pots were blown onto the beach. In one there was a large (well over a meter across)Octopus trapped. It took about 10 minutes to release it and then I dragged it back to the sea where it happily swam away. Pity I can’t uplift a video we took.

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  5. 5. hkraznodar 12:15 pm 02/28/2014

    @sparklyparrot – There are over a billion people that would disagree with you because Octopi are food for them. The use of the term flavor is very appropriate for discussing a food animal. There is also the perfectly valid use of the term flavor as a descriptor having nothing to do with taste. Perhaps you should read more.

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