Octopus Broods Eggs For Record 4.5 Years

The animal kingdom's bravest and most vigilant mother could be a deep sea octopus who has just broken the world record for egg brooding. Continue reading →

Mother of the Year in the animal kingdom could go to a deep sea octopus who spent at least four and one half years fearlessly guarding and caring for her eggs before they hatched.

The effort breaks the world record for egg brooding and is documented in the latest issue of PLoS ONE.

Tentacled Who's Who: Bizarre and Extreme Cephalopods

Bruce Robison, a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and his colleagues spotted the vigilant deep sea octopus mother in May 2007 during regular surveys at a Pacific Ocean site in the Monterey Canyon called "Midwater 1." The female Graneledone boreopacifica was clinging to a rocky ledge just above the floor of the canyon about 4,600 feet below the ocean surface.

Over the next 4.5 years, the researchers dove to this exact same site 18 times, according to the paper. During each visit, they saw the same octopus. She was easy to spot, as she had distinctive scars on her body, possibly sustained while fighting off predators hoping to snatch her eggs.

The mother octopus never moved from her spot during that entire time. She did not even feed or show interest in food, such as small crabs and shrimp, which would float by every so often.

She was solely focused on watching over her eggs and bathing the eggs in fresh, oxygenated seawater to keep them from being covered with silt or debris.

Video: Octopus Mimics Flounder

As the years passed, her translucent eggs grew larger and the researchers could see young octopuses developing inside. Over the same period, the female gradually lost weight and her already damaged skin became loose and pale.

The last time the researchers saw the brooding octopus was in September 2011. When they returned one month later, they found that the female was gone. As they wrote, "the rock face she had occupied held the tattered remnants of empty egg capsules." Based on these remains, they speculate that she was brooding 160 eggs!

Robison and his colleagues explained that the eggs develop more slowly in cold temperatures. The site is usually about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Young of this species also emerge from the eggs as fully formed miniature adults.

"The trade-off within the reproductive strategy of deep-living octopods is between the mother's ability to endure a long brooding period and the competitiveness of her hatchlings," the researchers explained. "Graneledone boreopacifica produces hatchlings that are very highly developed, which gives them the advantage of a high potential for survival."

As for what happened to the mother, "The ultimate fate of a brooding female octopus is inevitably death," the researchers wrote, "but in this first example from the deep sea, brooding also confers an extension of adult life that greatly exceeds most projections of cephalopod longevity."

Why Octopuses Don't Tie Themselves in Knots

It is possible that other deep sea animals could break even this female's impressive egg brooding record in the future. Close to the same league as this octopus is a species of mysid, a shrimp relative that is abundant in depths of Monterey Canyon. The mysid carries eggs for 20 months and goes without food the whole time.

The scientists say that it's important to understand such behaviors, since they affect how human activities could impact these animals. For example, accidental capture of one of these moms could lead to a dangerous reduction of the population, requiring years to recover. Preservation of the habitat, the climate and more are also key to the success of the young.

Life seems hard enough for these mothers. Hopefully, aside from studying and admiring them, we can leave them alone.

Photo: a Graneledone boreopacifica in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

A star at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's new exhibit "Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid and Cuttlefishes" is the flapjack octopus. The name was inspired by its flattened appearance. It is among the most anatomically compressed species in the world. The character "Pearl" in the Disney/Pixar film "Finding Nemo" was based on a flapjack octopus.

Video: Octopus Mimics Flounder

Flamboyant cuttlefish are colorful, and deadly. Its muscle tissue is highly toxic, making it one of only a handful of cephalopods known to be toxic. They can change color to help them sneak up on prey or to scare predators.

Video: Learn About the Cuttlefish

"Dwarf squid are the smallest squid species in the world," Monterey Bay Aquarium aquarist Chris Payne told Discovery News. In addition to this petite creature, the new exhibit features a dozen living exhibits showcasing rotating appearances by up to two dozen species -- many never exhibited before.

See Photos of the Giant Squid

On the other side of the size spectrum is the giant Pacific octopus. It is the largest octopus species in the world. Adults can weigh hundreds of pounds and have an arm span of more than 12 feet. The giant Pacific octopus is a master of disguise, like many other cephalopods. It can change both its skin texture and color in order to defend itself.

Video: Giant Pacific Octopus Returns

A cuttlefish moves by undulating a delicate fringe that runs along its entire body, but for a quick getaway it expels a forceful stream of water through its siphon, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium aquarist Bret Grasse. When threatened, cuttlefish can produce a cloud of ink called sepia. Long ago, this dark-brown ink was used for writing and drawing.

Artificial 'Cuttlefish' Muscles Contract for Camouflage

These are bigfin reef squid eggs, which were collected from the northern Indo Pacific, Monterey Bay Aquarium aquarist Alicia Bitondo told Discovery News. She added, "There are about 300 egg pods in this tank, with about 6 embryos per pod." She and others at the aquarium are breeding the species through multiple generations as one of the featured exhibit animals in the new special exhibition.

Unlike other species of octopus, the day octopus is more active in the daytime than at night. The day octopus originally arrived at the aquarium via a direct flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, since it is native to waters there. It lives in East African waters as well. The large, almost 3-foot-long predators are short-lived. They survive just one year, on average, and breed only once. Cephalopods, in general, don't live for very long, which is why the aquarium is cultivating cephalopods during the exhibition. "These are all short-lived animals," Monterey Bay Aquarium special exhibits coordinator Jennifer Dreyer said. "Many are species that have never been exhibited for very long by any of our colleagues, or raised through their entire lifecycle. This is definitely a first for any aquarium."

Up to 50 nautiluses will occupy a huge exhibit, with a ceiling-to-floor viewing window. These animals like to hide away safely in their protective shells. Many other cephalopods are equally evasive, desiring to blend into their surroundings for protection and to surprise prey. This can make putting them on display challenging. As Bitondo said, "We're trying to display something that doesn’t want to be seen."

A red octopus' normal color is red or reddish brown, but like many other cephalopods it can change quickly -- in a fraction of a second -- to yellow, brown, white, red or a variety of mottled colors. The red octopus is thought to be a clever animal. In 2012, a tiny juvenile red octopus hitchhiked into the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a sponge. It hid in one of the exhibits for a year before being discovered walking across the aquarium's floor in the middle of the night. The discovery helped to explain why so many crabs had gone missing during that period of time. They had gone into the red octopus's tummy. The then out-of-place octopus was eventually released into Monterey Bay, but the species will be represented by others in the new exhibition.

Best Ocean Animal Photos

The wonderpus octopus is native to the Indo Pacific region. Each individual has unique white markings on its head, allowing scientists to track individual specimens. It, along with other cephalopods, will be part of the new "Tentacles" exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The exhibit opens April 12 and runs through Labor Day of 2016.