Been to McWane Science Center lately? If you have you probably saw our Giant Pacific Octopus. Maybe she was active, or maybe you just saw her sitting in a ball. The first thing you notice when you walk up to the tank is how dark it is compared to the rest of the exhibits. Why is this? Well she is a nocturnal animal, meaning she sleeps during the day is active at night. Keeping the exhibit dark increases the chance of her being active. And you may notice a large No Flash Photography sign. But the tank is dark, how are you supposed to get a good picture? I assure you we are not trying to be difficult, we are merely trying to keep her healthy and happy. When Octopi feel threatened they will shoot out ink toward their predator and make a quick getaway. This works great in the ocean where there is a lot of water. In captivity there is no way for the octopus to escape the ink, and toxins in it can cause illness or death if not immediately cleaned.
Next you may ask why is there a jar, or even Mr. Potato Head, in the tank. We put her food in these objects so she has to work to get them and does not get bored. She will eat squid, clam, small fish, whole Butterfish, crab still in a shell, and many other types of sea life. She has not eaten any of the sea stars or the two Giant Chitins which share a tank with her.
Octopi are known for their intelligence, but that is just a small portion of what makes them so interesting. They have the largest brain of any invertebrates, but more interestingly it is donut shaped and their stomach passes through the middle of it. Think that is impressive? They have three hearts and blue blood. Two of the hearts pump to their gills, while the other one circulates their blood through their body. You probably already know they have eight arms, but did you know there are about 280 suckers on each arm, giving them a total of 2,240 suckers. So three hearts and all those arms probably has you thinking, "Wow these animals are so different from us." Well their mouth, also called a beak, is made out of the same material as a fingernail.
Octopi in general have very short life spans, only living on average 1-2 years. The Giant Pacific Octopus will live slightly longer with a life span of 3-4 years. The female will lay her eggs, which can be up to 200,000 and care for them until they hatch out at the size of a grain of rice. Of all those eggs only 1-2 will survive to adulthood and the female octopus will die shortly after they hatch.
So did you come to McWane and not see the octopus? She was here, but she has the ability to blend into her environment so she can hide from possible predators. She is able to do this with the help of tiny pigments in her cells called chromatophores. By expanding and contracting these pigments she is able to change color and blend into her environment. So if you didn’t see her come back and try again. We feed her on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so those are the best times to see her in action. Want to learn more cool facts? Just ask one of the many knowledgeable staff members in blue at McWane Science Center.
Octopus tank photography tip: Turn flash OFF, and take lots of photos until you get the shot you are looking for. Delete any unwanted excess photos.
Loretta and Adele's backgrounds are in the life sciences. They both love their jobs as well as all animals. Adele grew up here in Birmingham and is into yoga and gourmet cooking. Loretta grew up in Florida and is about to have her first child in April.