Octopus doesn't give up on offspring

Posted: Tuesday, December 07, 2004

ANCHORAGE - No mate? No problem.

Aurora, the Giant Pacific octopus at the Alaska Sealife Center, isn't afraid to go it alone.

Aurora laid tens of thousands of eggs in June after hitting if off with the aging yet amorous J-1. Unfortunately, her sweetheart died of old age in September. Still, Aurora tended her eggs.

Day in and day out, she sucked in water through her mantle and sent waves of water out through her siphon to gently cleanse her eggs. She defended them against hungry sea cucumbers and starfish.

Despite months of meticulous tending, Aurora's eggs remained pearly white with no signs of developing into baby octopuses. Aquarists at the center in Seward concluded the eggs were likely sterile.

"We were checking frequently and we didn't see anything inside," said aquarium curator Richard Hocking.

Just about everybody had given up - except Aurora. Last week, her 3,600-gallon tank was being drained so she could be removed from display when a sharp-eyed intern noticed something after a few of the eggs were placed in her hand. She saw two very small red dots in each egg.

"I looked and right away noticed the red dots," said Meghan Kokal, 24, who recently moved to Alaska from Helper, Utah. "I asked if that was normal."

It turns out the small red dots were baby octopus eyes.

Aurora probably had some moments of "quiet desperation" last Tuesday while several hundred gallons of water were drained from her tank, Hocking said.

As the water went down, one of the aquarists placed some of the eggs that had fallen from the sides of the tank on a rock shelf.

Even then, Aurora refused to give up.

"She didn't want to leave them. As the water was going down she was going down with it. She would spray a burst of water on the rocks on top of them," Kokal said.

Aquarists took a look under a microscope and saw the developing eyes and pulsing mantles. A brief meeting was held. It was decided that Aurora would stay in her tank after all.

"We started to fill it up again," Hocking said.

Aurora and J-1 surprised everyone in May when the two hit it off on their first date, embracing for hours in a dark corner of the tank. A few weeks later Aurora began dribbling long strings of pearly eggs down the sides of the tank, which is part of the center's "Denizens of the Deep" exhibit.

Aurora, believed to be 3 or 4, was about the size of a grapefruit when she was found in 2002 living inside an old tire in front of the SeaLife Center. J-1, a bachelor before meeting Aurora, died on Sept. 8 at 5 1/2 - old for a Giant Pacific octopus. He was about the size of a quarter when found on a beach near Seldovia in 1999.

In the wild, Giant Pacific octopus females stop eating when caring for eggs, weaken and die about the same time as the eggs hatch. Hocking said Aurora has lost a lot of weight and can't change colors as rapidly as when she was younger. Her skin also is stretched thinner and her suckers are less pliable.

"She looks like an old octopus," Hocking said.

Aurora will be allowed to stay with her eggs as long as she continues to care for them. When the eggs are close to hatching, which could be as late as spring, they will be moved to rearing tanks.

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