This Octopus Was Guarding Something. When Scientists Saw What It Was, They Freaked
The Octopus is one of the strangest creatures on Earth. While some have proposed they hail from the farthest reaches of space, others have claimed that they have an intelligence parallel to that of humans. Just like us, they certainly do some weird things.
This team of scientists sent a submersible into a huge underwater canyon in California’s Monterey Bay. At the canyon’s base, 1400 meters below the surface, they spotted a lone female octopus crawling towards a rocky slope in a hurry. This octopus was guarding something mysterious and the team was eager to find out what it was…
1. The Octopus
Octopi are not your normal creatures. Not only do they have beaks like that of a bird, but they also have a distributed nervous system which channels information through its eight limbs to its head, making it one of the more decentralized of aquatic animals.
You can see the evidence of such fascinating anatomical features by looking at the scar marks on the whales and fish these octopi attack. In essence, the appendage enables them to burrow deep into prey. But other than the beak and nervous system, the octopi are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. They are also some of the most mysterious…
2. Unparalleled Intelligence
The octopus has an extraordinarily curious breed of intelligence. An intelligence so high that it tends to enable the octopus to do some—let’s just say—strange things. While often times these oddities include things like escaping from the aquariums in which they’ve been imprisoned, others include things like guarding weird objects.
And this is where our story comes in. The particular Octopus we’re looking at was guarding something strange. What it appeared to be was a bunch of milky teardrops. But what exactly could these strange things be? Were they some sort of pearl, discarded by a forlorn clam? Or were they some sort of treasure, left abandoned by a group of swashbuckling pirates?
3. Lurking in the depths of Monterey Bay…
It was a sunny April day in Monterey Bay, California, and Bruce Robinson, a leading Marine Biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was performing a routine survey of the nearby waters. To do so, he sent a submersible with audio and visual capabilities into the bay. The hope was to gather new data for scientists to explore.
What he found next wasn’t necessarily strange. But after some careful deliberation, he had realized that something was, in fact, odd in the water. This something was an octopus guarding a strange aggregation of objects. And scientists under Robinson’s team would soon ponder this strange collection for some time.
4. What was in this deep canyon?
The canyon into which Robinson and his team had sent their submersible was the Monterey Canyon. This canyon is so deep that it stretches about one mile beneath the surface of the California waters. This depth is so formidable that it matches the vertical length of the Grand Canyon. That’s pretty big.
Other than its precipitous depths, the canyon holds many creatures of the deep. And in this deep, the creatures engage in things most us above the water rarely have the time to contemplate. One of these things was this octopus. Another was the bizarre thing that it appeared to be guarding…
5. The Octopus Spots Them!
Once the submersible had plunged to a depth of around 4,600 feet, it had discovered something interesting. This something was a solitary female octopus of the species Graneledone borepacifica. What’s even more strange is that this octopus appeared to be guarding something within the rock.
At first, the octopi was estranged from this mysterious object. But once it had noticed the submersible, it quickly maneuvered its way toward the wall of the canyon. Here, it had proceeded to cover the weird object with its body. What this implies, clearly, is that this object must have been of some importance to the octopus.
6. At a second glance…
For some reason, the research team under Robinson’s guidance didn’t really appreciate the finding. They waited, in other words, a while before they had embarked again into the depths. And once they did so again, they found that this strange octopus was still there, hovering over the same place in the rock.
It wasn’t until another 38 days had passed before the team had taken again to the depths. This octopus, then, had been swimming in close proximity to this particular spot on the wall for over five weeks. What it was guarding, then, had to be of superlative importance. But what, exactly, was this octopus guarding?
7. Where did these scars come from?
The researchers knew that this octopus was the same one they saw previously because of the distinctive scars that it had on its body. These scars, varying in size, showed that the octopus had seen its fair share of battles. Some of these battles, for instance, could have occurred while trying to guard whatever these weird things were.
Regardless of where it got these scars, the octopus was the one that they had seen previously. This was shocking for a few reasons. The most salient of these is that it implied that the octopus had not eaten since the initial time the scientists had seen it. This means it hadn’t eaten for over five weeks.
8. Glued to wall
The objects that the octopus was guarding were safely attached to the wall of the Monterey Canyon. But it was more than just one object—it was 160 of them. These tiny, little objects were covered by the octopuses eight arms. They curled around them as if its life depended on it. And maybe it did.
One of the most puzzling things about this situation was that the octopus didn’t appear at all interested in the food that surrounded it—despite its probable hunger. It’s as if guarding these objects was the only thing that mattered; it outweighed even the act of feeding itself. What on Earth could be so important to the octopus?
9. Starving itself?
The octopus was persistent in its protection of these objects. The submersible, for instance, had seen that tiny crabs and shrimps had been swimming around the creature. Yet still, it showed no interest. Normally, an octopus will make quick work of such creatures, gobbling them up with their beaks. It was willing to starve, in other words, to protect these weird objects.
The fact that this particular octopod didn’t show any interest in nearby food was strange—especially given that it had gone an apparent 38 days without food. This octopus, in other words, was starving itself severely to guard these objects. Then, scientists caught a glimpse of what the objects actually were.
10. Milky teardrops
When scientists paid more attention to the things the octopus was guarding, they got some clues as to what they could be. First off, they had noticed the color. The 160 objects were of this weird, milky-teardrop color. So that narrows down the possibilities substantially.
For the objects to be gold or of some sort of archaeological significance, they likely wouldn’t be of this color. They were, then, something even more strange and foreign than objects of gold or silver. It took the scientists another couple of days to figure out what these things were. But first, they had to lure the octopus away with some crafty tactics.
11. Attempted feeding
Because the octopus was ostensibly starving, the scientists had sought to attempt to feed it. The submersible they had sent down into the depths came fully equipped with a few robotic arms with which it could perform simple tasks like grabbing and moving graspable objects.
So the submersible’s next course of action was to grab some small crabs nearby and try to feed them to the octopi. But the octopi still showed no interest; it didn’t want to leave the milky objects. Whatever it was guarding was so important that it outweighed an offering from this metallic machine. The only recourse was to continue watching…
12. Years go by
The scientists had continued to watch the octopi for years to come. And, as you would have expected, the octopus’s condition had deteriorated substantially as the time wore on. Without eating, the octopi’s skin had changed colors from a healthy purple to a pale and pallid white. The change was striking, according to the observing scientists.
The skin had also suffered substantial weathering, dropping from its formerly taught state into one that was droopy and unpalatably saggy. The eyes of this octopus had also changed, shrinking and growing cloudy. What she was guarding, however, had also changed. The milky teardrops had grown bigger.
13. Gone missing
The initial discovery of the octopus was in April 2007. The last time the research team led by Robinson had checked in on the thing was September of 2011. That’s four whole years of waiting. This octopus, in other words, had gone four years without food guarding whatever these strange things were.
And, on this September morning when the team had tried to check in on the octopus, there was none to be found. The octopus had finally disappeared. Presumably, it had died and been reclaimed by the sea. But, even more to the point, the milky teardrops that the octopus was guarding were also gone. What was in their place would truly surprise these scientists.
14. Empty capsules
The milky teardrops that the octopi was once guarding had been left as empty shells. They had, in other words, released something else into the depths. For a period of 53 months, then, this octopi had been fostering the growth of something that would hatch something else into the world. These things happened to be both cute and well cared for.
Scientists couldn’t, however, see the things—they had hatched long prior to the submersible’s last appearance. The marine biologists could infer their existence by looking at the life and brooding behaviors of other octopi. And this is when scientists learned exactly what these oblong milky teardrops had birthed.
15. Guarding Personal Treasure
These milky teardrops were, in fact, eggs laid by the octopus itself, and the guarding of these eggs was the octopus’ strategy to keep them safe from predators. An octopi will, after it gives birth, lay its eggs somewhere where they can be protected. In this case, that was on the wall of this Monterey Canyon.
Then, after it gives birth to the eggs, it will sacrifice all that it has (including its own well-being) to keep the eggs safe and protected. It is so dedicated to this task that it will starve itself from all resources—even those proffered by weird underwater robots.
The most staggering thing about this finding was not that the octopus was guarding its own young with such commitment that it neglects to eat and take care of itself. Instead, it was for how long it had committed itself to this task. This octopus, to reiterate, had lived without food for over four years. That’s a long time.
This period of intense brooding is longer than any other known creature. The emperor penguin, for instance, is very famous for the amount of time it dedicates to its eggs. It will, in other words, guard its babies for something around two months. This is paltry when compared to the insurmountable sacrifice of this particular female octopus.
17. Other octopi
It’s something about the octopus, then, that motivates it to guard its eggs for a long time. It’s even more breathtaking that this process prevents it from self-care. How it survives during this long period of starvation is an amazing feat of evolutionary biology. And because of that, scientists have looked to its longevity to better under the process of aging.
Other octopi are similar in their commitment to their nascent young, often holding parallel records in post-gestational care. A captive octopus of the species Bathypolypus arcticus, for instance, was found to guard her eggs for record 14 months straight. This record, however, was clearly superseded by our Monterey Bay octopus.
18. The evolutionary strategy
The way in which this particular octopus (and others of a similar disposition) maintained its physiology while protecting its young is something to be studied. For the most part, it shows that the animal is able to parse its internal resources in such a way as to make them last.
And, in this case, it was able to make them last for an astounding four years. While this process is indeed remarkable, it is also detrimental. Clearly (as assessed by the degeneration of the octopuses skin), the elongation of the animal’s brooding period cannot be done without adverse side effects. This is especially true when the animal refuses to eat.
19. A biological conundrum
The strategy that the octopus uses to protect its young has a name—semelparity (semel meaning “once” and parity meaning “breeding strategy”). Ultimately, what it means is that the organism will go through pregnancy at one point in time, and then die shortly thereafter. This strategy is found in many species, including the small marsupial mouse, many insect species, and most crops like corn and agave.
The point of semelparity in the animals that utilize the strategy is to maximize their breeding potential. While in species that can breed more than once (i.e., you, everyone you know, and most other animals on this planet), there is an added benefit to continual breeding, this isn’t true of animals that can breed only once.
20. The importance of climate
In many animals that can breed only once, they live in a drastically different environment than others. Oftentimes, they have uncertain adulthood. In other words, the likelihood of them living out into their later years is very low. Because of this, it is advantageous to birth all of their offspring in one giant bout.
This is what our friend the Pacific octopus does. But in the case of the octopus, it doesn’t die immediately. Instead, it gives birth to a massive brood of eggs, then dedicates the rest of its resources to protecting those eggs from predation. This is the marine animal’s manifestation of semelparity.
21. No more movement
Now we’ll take a look at some of the physiological tactics that the octopus has implemented to actually endure this prolonged period of inactivity. The first of these tactics is that of metabolism. Normally, metabolism will drive you to eat—and digest—things in your surrounding environment.
These things can be plants, animals, or even minerals like clay. Ultimately, the process drives you to activity. The octopus, however, after having given birth, slows its metabolism drastically. It becomes inactive to the point of near complete dormancy. This, in tandem with a couple of other tactics, enables the octopi to live out the remainder of its life hiding its eggs.
22. Freezing water certainly helps
Another reason that it was able to survive for so long, was the surrounding freezing water. Cold water, as anyone who has jumped into a frozen lake can attest, has the tendency to slow things down. In this case, that thing is the cellular mechanics that drive nearly every process in the body.
When things get cold, everything from the movement of chemicals to the transferring of electrons slows down. This is, in fact, what heat is—the movement of electrons. With the surrounding cold water environment, then, the octopus was afforded another way in which to prolong its lifespan without having to do much.
23. The purpose of the long brood
Now we can turn our eye to the reasons behind this exceptionally long brooding period. For the most part, the reason it exists is to grow its eggs into large and healthy octopi babies. The longer it hovers over its eggs, in other words, the larger and more robust the animals inside will grow.
The octopi, then, will try its hardest to prolong the time in which it can protect its eggs. The longer it does so, the larger (and more successful) its progeny will be. The conditions that this particular octopus had lived in had greatly contributed to this exceptionally long period, enabling it to protect its young for far longer than many other species.
24. A rare measurement
Most scientists who have studied this specific instance have thought that the animal has had an extraordinarily long brooding period. But this could, as many scientists also recognize, be due to the fact that we haven’t really monitored many of the species while brooding. It would be a fruitful endeavor, then, to actually do some of this monitoring.
The long duration might actually be commonplace among the Pacific octopus. For us to ascertain whether this behavior is normal, scientists would have to employ many more submersibles in an attempt to gain more information about the average length of brooding periods. Such information, however, is elusive most of the time.
25. A salamander dethroned
The previous supposed record holder for the longest gestational period (that is, the period during which a baby is carried to term) was the alpine salamander. This species of amphibian was known to maintain the pregnancy of its young for a period of up to four years. This Pacific octopus of the Monterey Canyon clearly exceeded this.
While the salamander is not similar to the octopus species in that it will essentially self-destruct after birth, it is like the octopi in that it devotes time to its young proportional to how robust and large the babies will grow. The shorter the gestational period, in other words, the more gaunt and unhealthy the infant will be.
26. Previous octopi
Past research has shown that the average duration of the octopus brooding period was something around 14 months—extraordinarily paltry when compared to this particular octopi specimen. But again, much of this exceptionalism could be due to the fact that we just haven’t seen most octopi species brood.
Again, this is an area in which the observation of octopi breeding periods could prove astoundingly fruitful. If we were to engage in such endeavors, we might be able to establish that the octopus displays amazing resourcefulness when it comes to prolonging its life. This, in turn, could be studied to better understand the processes of aging (and, conversely, of not aging).
27. A total of 18 visits
All in all, the group of marine biologists had visited the animal 18 times. And in these 18 times, they had not once observed the octopus eating. Instead, all they saw was that it was protecting whatever weird objects lay beneath it. It’s amazing that it managed to stay in this same place for that duration of time, and the revelation perplexed scientists.
The vehicle they had used to do these routine checkups was a remotely operated underwater vehicle (called an ROV for short). With this, they were able to check up on the octopus, what it was guarding, and the general state and condition of the surrounding terrain. The machine could take measurements, analyze surrounding rock, and perform many other rudimentary functions.
28. A different species
To contrast our findings of the Pacific octopi, where can look at others that have a drastically different approach to brooding. The shallow-water octopi, for instance, will lay its eggs close to the surface and spend a negligible amount of time caring for them. It is, in some sense, opposite of the Pacific octopus.
The difference in strategy, however, appears to be effective. Because of the prevalence of the Pacific octopi, many consider its strategy extremely effective. It does, in other words, help to create a species that will survive and thrive in the world of marine biology and ecology. It will just take some time.
29. Life and brooding
One of the more amazing features about this breeding period is what it means when compared to the animal’s actual lifespan. These octopi, in other words, will only live for a period of one to two years. After this terse life, the animal will die after having given birth.
But, as we realized, this death is slow and predicated on the laborious growth of the eggs over which it is caring. This stretches the life of the Pacific octopus over double of what it would otherwise live. So, in the case of this octopi, the lifespan of the specimen is around six to seven years—not a paltry and diminutive two or three.
Ultimately, the find shows several staggering things about the Pacific octopi species. In particular, it shows how it’s able to elongate and stretch its physiology to accommodate a drastically long incubation period, seeing to its young for a period of over four years.
This long period, ever more staggeringly, is longer than any other gestational period currently studied. This insight could offer plenty of new discoveries in the scientific field of senescence and aging. All we have to do, then, is employ more submersibles to actually study these things in their prime. Then, we’ll know whether this life was just an aberration or not.