Students meet Giant Pacific Octopus at Ocean Science Discovery Lab

Spring is an exciting time on land as well as in the ocean and along its shores. It’s a time to bundle up and take the kids out to explore the excitement of the waking of life and the birth of a new summer.

Seaweeds, plankton, small boneless animals and fishes, and large marine mammals all are part of this cycle of life, which gets reenergized every year when the days get longer and the sun gains strength. At the Kodiak Ocean Science Discovery Lab we bring a little bit of this new growth into the classroom to get a chance to investigate and learn about it. Our motto is that we can only care about what we know, and to help kids care about the ocean environment they need to meet and understand the animals in it. Luckily, living in this amazing Island environment, we have the opportunity to meet the ocean life up close and personal.

This year we have prepared a special personal encounter for the students. How many places do you know where a third or fourth grade student gets a chance to personally interact with and touch a life octopus? As part of a research project on Pacific octopus, we will have a designated outreach octopus to interact directly with kids during their field trip to the Ocean Science Discovery Lab and Kodiak Fisheries Research Center this spring.

Exciting? Definitely. Scary? Yes, just a little. After all, the Giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus species and can grow to an impressive 600 lbs. and an arm span of 30 feet. There used to be a sports and public entertainment contest in Washington State where divers would wrestle with large octopus and try to bring them onshore. Whoever managed to bring in the largest octopus would win the contest. We do not intend to encourage any of our students to dive into the tank and we will choose a smaller specimen for our gentle encounters with this creature of the deep.

Octopus truly are among the most fascinating of ocean creatures and it would fill more than this newspaper to mention their amazing features. They are known for their surprising intelligence and ability to learn. Observations of octopus in captivity suggest that each octopus has an individual personality and some display specific reactions to certain people they have come to know. These reactions may include changing the color of their skin, blowing water out of their siphons, or moving about in certain ways. It has been shown that an octopusses brain continues to grow throughout its life, both in size and the number of brain cells. We humans can only match this with a nose that continues to grow throughout our life, however, it does not increase our power to sniff things out.

Octopusses don’t need a nose, they use their suction cups for sniffing. In adult females there are 2,240 suction cups, each capable of testing the water and objects around them. About 60% of the nerve cells are located in the octopusses arms and most of them are connected to the suction cups, giving the animal an enormous information processing capacity.

If the adult male octopus receives the information that there is an adult female in the vicinity, it may engage in a courtship ritual, which includes a display of vigorously flashing skin coloration and waving his swelling ligula. This is a specially designed part of one of his arms, with the purpose of depositing a spermatophore with the female. His spermatophore, the package containing his contribution of genetic material to the next generation, can reach the impressive size of 3 feet. Upon deposition of his gift, the male octopus is believed to be able to remove any previously deposited sperm packages from the female.

The female retains the sperm package until she is ready to lay eggs. The eggs travel past the spermatophore and get fertilized on the way. Mom then deposits pretty strings of eggs around her den and devotes the next 6 to 7 months of her life to keeping her eggs clean and aerated. Her devotion to the clutch literally kills her, because during this time she refuses to hunt or eat, and since her body does not store fat, she slowly digests her muscle tissue, loosing half of her body weight. When the eggs hatch, she gently blows them out of the den and into the currents, where the tiny octopusses spend the first 2-3 month in the plankton. Few survive this early life stage and out of 57,000 little ones only one or two reach maturity.

Both parents only get one chance at reproduction. After mating they enter a life stage of senescense, where they cease eating and health deteriorates. While the females spend this stage tending to the clutch, the males wander aimlessly around the ocean, exposing themselves needlessly to the dangers of predation. Marine creatures who would delightedly gobble up a senescent octopus include seals, sea lions, some fish, sharks, sea otters, toothed whales and other octopus. Wait, octopus eat octopus? They do. While most octopus usually dine on crabs, clams, scallops and the likes, they have been filmed catching fish and small sharks and the remains of small sharks have been found in octopus guts. While octopus are fished for human consumption, they have never been reported to eat kids and we promise to keep our students and octopus safe.

Octopus have so many fascinating features (did I mention their 3 hearts?), but time is up and the Kodiak students will have to return to their classrooms, hopefully inspired by what they learned about the amazing creatures of the oceans around us.

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