Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Octopus Entertainment

Three days a week, volunteer members of our homecrew come to help us clean the tanks and feed our animals. With increasing frequency, our Giant Pacific Octopus Athena has eagerly greeted her volunteer by grabbing their tongs and cleaning equipment. Perhaps this is just her way of saying hello, or maybe she just knows she will be fed soon and wants to speed up the process.

Athena grabbing onto the tongs

In researching the care and feeding of these intellegent molluscs (some researchers consider them to be about as smart as a cat) I quickly learned that most aquarists provide some sort of enrichment activity for these animals to keep them occupied. Octopuses have shown the ability to solve mazes, learn cues and remember solutions. What has puzzled scientists is that octopuses develop this intelligence during a short life span (up to 4 years) and in social isolation, rather than in complex communities like chimps, dolphins or humans.

Athena takes the ball

I had tried to make "crab in a bottle" puzzles for our Red Octopus before without success. Further investigation revealed the key part I was missing-- an octopus needs to smell that the toy or puzzle has food inside. Octopuses smell with their sucker discs (up to 1,800) and rubbing the outside with the food added the scent she needed to know there was a tasty smelt inside.

Athena explores the ball with her tentacles, but still keeps the tongs in her grip.

After just a minute or two, she had emptied the ball and taken the smelt up to her mouth.

The ball--no more fish inside!

She held onto the ball and explored it for a few more minutes. Then she did something totally unexpected. She grabbed and ate one of the large Walleyed Pollock which had been her tankmates for over a month! She had been daintily touching the fish for a few weeks, but made no sign of attack until today.

Spread out in all of her octopus glory! (note the unsuspecting Pollock behind her)

Come see Athena and our other fascinating animals when the Marine Exhibit re-opens on April 2, 2010. Meanwhile, we'll be working on some new octopus toys to keep her entertained.

Chrissy McLean
Marine Program Coordinator

Learn more about Octopus Intelligence at
and at

1 comment:

  1. Chrissy-

    Was it one of the Pollocks that was in the piling tank bullying the other fish all summer and fall? If so then it was Fish Karma! Never pick on fish smaller than you otherwise you never know when you may become octopus food!!



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