The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Octopus sets record for motherly care

Deep-sea creature protects its eggs for 4 1/2 years, longer than any known species in the animal kingdom, study reveals; ‘octomom’ never ate

Deep-sea octopus observed guarding her eggs in May 2007. Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Deep-sea octopus observed guarding her eggs in May 2007. Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

A deep-sea octopus—being described by some as a real-life Octomom—has been observed protecting its eggs for 4 1/2 years, thus becoming the most patient of mothers known in the animal kingdom.

“As far as we know this is the longest brooding or gestation of any animal on the planet,” Brad Seibel of the University of Rhode Island who participated in the report told the Los Angeles Times. “Elephants gestate for 20 to 21 months and some deep-sea sharks carry their embryos internally for a couple years [basking sharks reportedly carry their young up to three years], but nothing is longer than this.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) announced the finding on Wednesday, though the study ranged from 2007 to 2011. Here’s the story from the MBRI:

In May, 2007, researchers using a remotely operated vehicle photographed a female octopus clinging to a rocky wall 4,600-feet deep in Monterey Canyon less than a month after laying her eggs (top photo).

Researchers observed the site 18 times over the next four-plus years and found the same octopus, identified by distinctive scars, in the same place. As years passed, the young octopuses could be seen developing inside their eggs, as the mother lost weight and her skin became loose and pale.

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Close-up of egg capsules guarded by mother octopus. Photo courtesy of PLOS ONE

“The researchers never saw the female leave her eggs or eat anything,” the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said. “She did not even show interest in small crabs and shrimp that crawled or swam by, as long as they did not bother her eggs.”

Researchers last saw the mother octopus in September 2011. A month later, it was gone and the empty egg cases—around 160 of them—marked the spot.

From PLOS ONE:

Octopuses typically have a single reproductive period and then they die. Once a clutch of fertilized eggs has been produced, the female protects and tends them until they hatch. In most shallow-water species this period of parental care can last from 1 to 3 months, but very little is known about the brooding of deep-living species.

In the cold, dark waters of the deep ocean, metabolic processes are often slower than their counterparts at shallower depths. Extrapolations from data on shallow-water octopus species suggest that lower temperatures would prolong embryonic development periods. Likewise, laboratory studies have linked lower temperatures to longer brooding periods in cephalopods, but direct evidence has not been available.

Until now.

PLOS ONE wrote that these surprising results “emphasize the selective value of prolonged embryonic development in order to produce competitive hatchlings. They also extend the known boundaries of physiological adaptations for life in the deep sea.”

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Empty octopus egg cases, about 160 of them, photographed October 2011. Photo courtesy of PLOS ONE

“I was thinking because the eggs are so large and the temperature is so low they might brood for three years, but to have it be 4 1/2 years is just stunning,” Janet Voight, a cephalopod specialist at the Field Museum in Chicago, told the Los Angeles Times.

“What we know about shallow-water octopus is they grow really fast, hit sexual maturity and then go into senescence [old age] in what seems to us, a very short time. So it is just amazing that this octopus can be so long lived.”

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