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 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.
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.
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."
"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