No. 40–The Octopus

I was working on what was intended to be this month’s column on how snails build their shells when I got a call from my friend Augdon at Port Royal Seafood. His boss, William Gay, was out on Battery Creek running crab traps and had found an octopus in one of the traps – did I want it?

I had to think about that one. Inside there was a voice saying, don’t do it – please don’t do it. I looked around the room and wondered where I would put it and how was I going to rig an escape proof system (an absolute necessity with this creature) with the type of tanks, hoods and filters we have? What would I use as a holding tank till I could figure all that out?

“How big is it”, I asked. “I don’t know, he’s still on the water.” was the reply. Please let it be a little one, I thought to myself. “Okay… we’ll take it” I said as my eyes fell on the only tank in the room that could hold the creature for the time it would take to set up a more permanent residence. It was the only one with a fully enclosing hood that could be secured by placing a bucket of water on top and had a separate filtration chamber.

It wasn’t until my new ward arrived at about closing time that I realized that I mighta-shoulda listened to that “don’t do it” voice. It was not a little one. I knew instinctively that it was going to be a challenge to provide a suitable home for the creature and determined then and there that it would be released if I weren’t able to do so in a week.

Facing a steep learning curve I went on line that evening for a cram course on the care and feeding of an octopus. I learned that though they adapt well to captivity, it is a high maintenance animal. This is due to the constant shedding of skin from the body and suckers, body wastes, and messy dining habits. There was a hint to the true meaning of “high maintenance” next morning I was greeted with a tank so foul I at first thought the creature had succumbed overnight. It hadn’t.

After an immediate total water change I spent a good part of the day jury-rigging three additional filters which have since maintained water quality at a suitable level. Tomorrow, one day short of a week since it arrived and the deadline date for this column, I will complete renovations to a hood and filter system that will allow the octopus to move into its new home.

Octopuses are in the phylum Mollusca which means they share a common ancestor with whelks and clams. They are in the class Cephalopoda and related to squid and cuttlefish. The species name of our new acquisition is Octopus vulgaris.

The octopus is demonstrably the most intelligent of all invertebrates. They have learned to rum mazes, open jars containing prey animals and are notorious escape artists. There are documented tales of their slipping the confines of their home tank in the cover of darkness, raiding neighboring tanks to consume the hapless occupants and returning home before morning. It is the latter that accounts for the extra care taken setting up the tank for our new charge.

O. vulgaris ranges temperate oceans world wide and is the most common species on our Atlantic Coast. They are not, however, found in estuaries. So what was this guy doing munching on William Gay’s crabs in Battery Creek? Again, as I’ve mentioned many times, it is because of the unique nature of the Port Royal Sound estuarine system. It was here because the high salinity of our water allowed it to be here. What puzzles me is why there were crabs in the creek the third week of January.* The only explanation can be that the extended unseasonably warm period we enjoyed, now ended, kept inland water temperatures at a suitable level for a minority of hearty crabs. My guess is they’re gone by now.

Aside from blue crabs, O. vulgaris feeds on live clams, snails, shrimp, and fish which will keep me busy catering to the needs of ours. I, nevertheless, look forward to observing and learning from and about the new guy (if it is a guy) on the block. My main concern is how long I will have the pleasure of its company. The life span is said to be in the range of two years and I surmise, by its size, that this one is mature. There’s no way of telling how long this one will be with us. The good thing is we now have a tank that can house a successor. I’ll be able to ask our shrimper and crabber friends to keep their eyes out for a younger specimen. One that will be able to spend a longer period helping humans gain a little more appreciation for the incredible creatures they are.

*It is the nature of the beast that columns must be submitted one to two months prior to the date of publication.