The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Alaska SeaLife Center fosters octopus babies

 

Alaska SeaLife Center

Lulu’s paralarvae are living in a variety of environments.

Alaska SeaLife Center’s giant Pacific octopus Lulu is still protecting a few small egg clusters hanging from her tank wall in the “Denizens of the Deep” exhibit. But after six months, her egg hatching process has slowed to a trickle, she’s using up her energy reserves and she’s probably not long for this world.

Lulu, who came to the center from Prince William Sound in 2009 as a small youngster, began laying tens of thousands of eggs in March of 2012, a full six months after mating with resident Felix a male giant Pacific octopus. Her eggs slowly hatching this spring, then sped up during June or July, producing a couple hundred new hatchlings per day. However, what surprised the staff was Lulu’s ability to hold onto her eggs so long before laying them. Not much is known about the mating, pregnancies or maternal habits of octopuses as there are few opportunities to view them in the wild. Whatever they learn here is helpful and will be shared with the larger scientific community, said ASLC Aquarium Curator Richard Hocking.

LuLu’s young paralarvae are doing fairly well, with the more recently hatched baby octopuses still surviving in different marine tanks. But they’re not living as long as the octopus paralarvae that were hatched in 2004 and 2005 after similar in-house octopus matings. In 2005, a few octopus young lived for 75-90 days which is longer than any of Lulu’s young have survived. While staff always enter each new breeding situation optimistically, hoping that one or two of the tens of thousands of octopus paralarvae will eventually survive to adulthood, the center has not yet brought a giant Pacific octopus born in captivity to that stage.

Only one other aquarium has ever done so, Hocking said. What they’re hoping for is for some the baby octopuses to enter the next stage in which they descend to the bottom of the tank and start looking for shells to hide in, and seeking food from there.

For now, the paralarvae are translucent little critters perhaps a quarter of an inch long. While visible to the naked eye they’re not much larger than they were when they were hatched. They have fully functioning eyes, eight tiny little arms with suckers and use jet propulsion to move around near the top of the water in their tank. Some aquarium staff believe that those housed in the larger tanks are growing larger now than before, but there’s been no objective evidence of that, Hocking said.

ASLC aquarists are experimenting with a wide variety of differently configured tanks, some with moving water and some with minimal water movement. The staff is feeding the juveniles a strict diet of live plankton and sea life, mostly obtained from the water intake system, the small boat harbor or near the shorelines of Resurrection Bay. In previous years the center managed to obtain a greater variety of plankton for their octopus young, Hocking said, and their nutrition was supplemented by other sources, such as chopped up shrimp. But this year there appears to be less variety of plankton readily available.

Lulu has not been fed and she generally stopped scavenging for food since laying her eggs. She has gradually lost weight. As nature takes its course, Lulu would die on her own once her job as mother-protector of her eggs is completed. The ASLC staff may make the decision to intervene and humanely euthanize her when the time is right, Hocking said. Euthanasia is not a decision they’ll take lightly, he said. But allowing her to slowly rot away naturally, like a spawned-out salmon, is not something they would like to do either.

Nor would the center allow anything such as might have been her fate had she been in the wild, like feeding her to a sea lion, as that would not be considered appropriate.

The center has occasionally euthanized octopuses in a similar end-of-life condition. The most recent being an octopus named Opal who came to ASLC from the Pratt Museum. Their method of choice is to gradually make their tank water colder and colder until the octopus dies. It is not a painful death, Hocking said, but perhaps not as quick as being consumed by another animal.

After she dies, Lulu’s carcass will likely be frozen and saved for use in a scientific dissection or possibly other research, Hocking said. The American Association of Veterinary Technicians will meet at ASLC next month. Its members might also appreciate the opportunity to dissect a giant Pacific octopus. There are also school groups as well as the local marine science club that could benefit.

 

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