Monday, December 10, 2018

An Enchanting Lady stars in the Octopus Learning Project

Eleanora, a giant Pacific octopus, has taken up residency at the aquarium

Eleanora, a giant Pacific octopus, in repose in her tank at entrance of the Aquarium. Photo by Florian Graner.

Her name is Eleanora -- Nora for short -- and she is as mysterious as she is majestic, as elusive as she is enchanting. She’s a two-year-old (ish) giant Pacific octopus and, these days, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center is lucky to host her.

Given to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center by Friday Harbor Labs, Nora is the subject of filmmaker Florian Graner’s "Octopus Learning Project." The goal of the collaborative effort between Graner and PTMSC Aquarist Ali Redman can be summed up in three words: observe and learn.

PTMSC Aquarist Ali Redman observes 'Nora.
Photo by Florian Graner.
Graner, who has devoted his life to studying and filming undersea creatures, explains that the octopus is quite a reserved animal in the wild, only leaving the safety of its habitat (such as rocks and reefs) to feed.

So in order to truly understand its behaviors, we need to be able to observe them in a non-threatening environment.

Several times a week, Graner visits ‘Nora at the aquarium to film her for a German documentary he is producing about the giant Pacific octopus.

You might be surprised to learn that octopuses are smart. Very smart. In fact, they rank among the most intelligent invertebrates in the world.

Nora certainly lives up to that claim. Redman often coaxes her out of hiding with a clam in a bottle.

“Animals are trained in steps,” she explains. “When they approximate a behavior, you reward them.” 

Nora took her time warming up to the food jar with the green lid.
Photo by Florian Graner. 
But Nora also has a mind of her own. For some reason, she did not initially like the food jar with the green lid that Redman introduced, pushing it away and even avoiding it altogether. But then one day her hesitance vanished and she pushed the lid off so she could grasp the frozen fish “popsicle” inside. 

Having mastered that, Redman introduces a plastic Mr. Potato Head toy in an effort to teach ‘Nora how to open its back “flap” to retrieve a treat. Again, ‘Nora did not disappoint, billowing her large mantle out to envelop her shellfish snack before casting off the shells in a show of gastronomic satisfaction.

It’s mind-boggling to see Nora change colors – one minute a deep red-orange color, the next slipping into her brownish green-gray tones as she camouflages herself against the rocks. And then there’s her “digesting” phase – a somewhat more alabaster color. She’s got the perfect “outfit” for every occasion.

Octopus have an amazing ability to blend into their surroundings.
Photo by Florian Graner.
Nora will eventually outgrow her tank and be released back into the wild to live out her life to the fullest. One day, she may well approach 50 pounds.

But in the meantime, we look forward to watching her grow and learn, as we learn and grow from the incredible gift of her presence.

PS -- Watch video below of Eleanora retrieving food from a glass tube!

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