Thursday, April 6, 2006

Every So Often, Not at Great Speed

So up there in Seward, Alaska, at the Alaska Sea Life Center, they had this Octopus called Aurora.

Aurora was about five years old when she died. A Giant Pacific octopus, she was found outside the Sea Life Center when she was only about the size of a softball.

She was living inside an old tire that had filled with water from the rain. They took her to live in the aquarium and she did pretty well.

Octopuses are really smart - maybe as smart as dogs. They are excellent problem solvers and can learn to recognize symbols and play games. But they don’t live very long.

Aurora lived at the aquarium for three years before somebody had the idea to try to hook her up with the other resident Giant Pacific octopus, a male by the name of J-1.

J-1 was the largest known octopus in the world. He weighed 57 pounds. He, too, was a foundling - found on a beach when he was only the size of a quarter.

He was about five years old at the time he was introduced into Aurora’s tank. He was pretty near the end of his life. His skin was beginning to wear away and his suckers were cracking and becoming pitted. He had never met another octopus.

When they dropped J-1 into Aurora’s tank, Aurora freaked out a little bit. She retreated to the bottom and bunched herself into a ball. Eventually though, it was Aurora who approached J-1. She reached out a tentative tentacle and touched the old guy. Then she ran away, scrunched herself into a corner of the tank.

Little by little, J-1 pursued Aurora and won her over with, I dunno, charisma. Maybe he did the thing where he squeezes into a really little jar.

Anyway, at some point, the two of them suckered themselves onto the back wall of their glass enclosure with J-1 on the outside, completely covering Aurora. They stayed like that for more than eight hours, mating. At times during this somewhat alien lovemaking, J-1 flashed several different colors in rapid succession, from deep red to ghostly white, which is a thing octopuses can do. Nobody really knows what it means, though.

When they finally separated, J-1 had done what he could, but nobody was sure if the two were too old to conceive.

A month later, Aurora retreated to a rocky outcropping in a corner of the tank and laid tens of thousands of tiny, pearlescent eggs. She began the long process of caring for her unborn young by drawing water into her mantle and blowing it over them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was June. If all went well, in six to eight months she would hatch her eggs and then die of starvation and exhaustion.

Octopuses stop eating entirely while they tend their eggs. They really only die because they give up everything for their eggs.

But early on, there were problems. Her eggs weren’t developing. They failed to grow or change color as they should have. Probably Aurora was simply too old to be an octopus mother. Still, she sat next to her eggs and kept the water moving over them. Occasionally she would have to get rid of a curious starfish or two that snuck in at night, looking for a meal.

In September of 2004, J-1 died of old age and Aurora was still tending her (most likely sterile) eggs. She hadn’t eaten anything in months.

When December rolled around and still the eggs showed no sign of developing, Aurora’s keepers decided to drain the tank and remove the eggs that were slowly killing their well-intentioned mother.

Aurora had other ideas.

As the water level fell, the eggs were slowly exposed to the air and, in order to stay under water where she could breathe, Aurora was forced further and further away from them. She repositioned herself, half in and half out of the water, and began spraying long streams of water onto the now exposed rock face where her eggs were slowly drying and dying in order to keep them moist.

An intern charged with clearing the undeveloped eggs from the tank noticed that some of them had little red dots inside them - eyes.

They were woefully undeveloped after seven months, but Aurora’s eggs weren’t sterile after all. They hastily refilled her tank and she moved back next to them and resumed her vigil. She would have a long while left to go.

It should have taken - at most - eight months, but it took Aurora and her eggs more than twelve.

Finally, one day in April 2005, a tiny, almost spherical, baby octopus hatched from one of the eggs and began floating around in the tank. The keepers were sure that would be it, but in the coming days, in ones or twos or tens or twenties, "every so often, and not at great speed", thousands and thousands of babies were born.

They had to set up additional tanks just to hold them all.

As the eggs hatched, Aurora became noticeably more active for the first time in months, stretching herself across the glass and moving around her tank.

Aurora, who had weighed 37 pounds at the beginning of her long ordeal, was now a cephalopod waif. She hadn’t eaten on her own in more than a year. Her keepers had been hand feeding her fish and crabmeat in an effort to extend her life. They were successful, after a fashion. She lived until August of 2005, four months after the first of her babies were born, when she was euthanized out of concern for her comfort.

For octopuses, birthing is a numbers game. Out of thousands of babies, some two dozen of Aurora’s babies (a huge number for an octopus brood) have survived and grown up and are being cared for at the Sea Life Center today.

Here's a picture of Aurora, who was a hell of a mother octopus:

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